Country Jukebox Jury LPs: Natalie Hemby and Ryan Hurd

October 21, 2021

Natalie Hemby – Pins and Needles

One of the Highwomen and a key part of Miranda Lambert’s songwriting gang, Natalie put out her debut album Puxico in 2017 on the GetWrucke label, named after her married name (producer Mike Wrucke is Mr Natalie Hemby). The big song on that album was This Town Still Talks About You, but it mostly went under the radar because country radio didn’t push it; it is notoriously unkind to women over the age of 35.

The pre-released tunes from this second album include the title track, a wonderful groove about love and stuff written with her pals Brothers Osborne, and the soaring Sheryl Crow-like Heroes, which opens the album. Conversely, Radio Silence is a chilling track about the difficulties in a relationship which paints the narrator as on the outside looking in.

New Madrid has Natalie singing near the top of her range about ‘the rift between us’ over a decent sonic bed, pronouncing the word ‘Mad-rid’ (as in angry). Lake Air shares the mood of Little Big Town’s recent work, as befits a songwriter like Natalie who can explore human relationships and deep emotion: ‘We were silhouettes, ghosts in the rain/ Every single word felt like a day’. I also like the metaphor on Pinwheel, ‘my head’s spinning, tilting on the whirl’, and the elegiac closing track Last Resort, which has a beautiful chorus and lyrics about shelters falling without warning.

Natalie has roped in some friends to help write songs for the album. Fellow Highwoman Maren Morris was in the room for Heart Condition, which has one of the album’s best choruses. Banshee (‘please leave my love alone’) and It Takes One To Know One were written with Miranda: the former has a spooky intro with whistling and a wordless middle section, while the latter has an unabashed pop chorus. Hardest Part About Business (‘is minding your own!), written with Sunny Sweeney, is driven by handclaps, Natalie’s double-tracked vocals and a banjo lick.

The album won’t be as heralded as Miranda’s, but it does show Natalie as a top songwriter who is finding an audience with some great songs in varied styles.

Ryan Hurd – Pelago

Mr Maren Morris, as he is forever known, has been knocking around as a singer/songwriter for several years, with tunes like To A T, Every Other Memory and Diamonds or Twine. All three of those songs are tacked onto the end of Pelago, Ryan’s debut album, which showcases his singing, songwriting and vocal prowess.

Ryan moved to Nashville to write songs, and was often in the room with Maren Morris before she blew up as a performer. Indeed, Ryan’s album opens with the pretty Pass It On, written with and featuring vocals from Maren as well as the hot-right-now Michael Hardy. The sunny optimism of the tune is very Kenny Chesney, and it wouldn’t surprise me if Ryan opens up for him next year. There is a C2C-sized gap in his tour dates, so expect to see him in the UK in March, crossing fingers.

It wouldn’t be his first visit: I caught him in London in 2018 in the All Bar One space playing tunes including You Look Good, which he wrote for Lady A. I don’t remember it but Ryan has been playing Chasing After You since 2017, a song which is on the album and which was a single that is now in the top ten at country radio. It is on course to get to number one and also to win a CMA Award, although Ryan didn’t write it.

Elsewhere on the album, sunniness can also be found on the singalong jam Coast, the reminiscin’ tune June July August and Palm Trees in Ohio. Ryan must have written hundreds of variations on the ‘I love you’ theme and this last one is probably one of his best, expressing the distance of his love until the elements stop working (‘when the Great Lakes run out of water’). I also like the line ‘there ain’t no way we can be platonic’, on the song of that name, though the chorus (‘oh yeah, hey girl’) is a bit immature for a man who is better suited to an older demographic.

Conversely, Ryan puts on a brave face on the strings-augmented Tab With My Name On It, while What Are You Drinking turns the bro-country trope on its head, as Ryan wonders whether his ex is on the wine or tequila, champagne or Tanqueray. It’s Adult Contemporary country produced immaculately by Ryan’s buddy Aaron Eshuis. Ditto I Never Said I’m Sorry, a triple-time tune full of penpics of a ruined relationship.

If I Had Two Hearts – ‘I’d let you break that one too’ just so his heartbreak can cease – sounds like contemporary country and could have been put on hold by any major-label act. It’s no surprise that Ryan’s A-list buddies Randy Montana and Will Weatherly, who are both often found in the brackets as songwriters, were in the room with him.

Ryan’s connections serve him well on The Knife or the Hatchet, a ballad written with Nicolle Galyon, Laura Veltz and Jimmy Robbins, who have all written with Maren too. Dierks Bentley had it on hold for ages but it reverts back to Ryan, who begs to be put out his miserable relationship and for the blow to be delivered either with the twist of a knife or a hatchet buried. This is proper songwriting by four A-Listers.

The two sides are brought together with melodic Shane McAnally co-write Hell Is An Island (‘without you’), where Ryan escapes from his ex by flying South, but not even sunshine can take his mind off her. Even the ‘strawberry daquiris’ remind him of the first time the pair met. Listen out for the autotune in the middle section!

Country Jukebox Jury LP: Zac Brown Band – The Comeback

October 19, 2021

What a mess Zac Brown’s career has been recently. It can be attributed directly to band lynchpin Wyatt Durette leaving to help Luke Combs write hits that capture the zeitgeist. Ten years ago it was the ZBB era, with the band playing wicked sets at Country2Country including passable versions of Enter Sandman and Bohemian Rhapsody. These didn’t sit well with the Jimmy Buffett-inspired beach jams like Knee Deep, Chicken Fried and Toes, which put the band on the radio regularly in the pre-Bro era.

Songs like Beautiful Drug and Zac’s Sir Rosevelt project with buddy Niko Moon (who co-wrote the mighty Loving You Easy) moved him away from country radio, while the likes of Chris Cornell popped up on albums which veered more towards blues and soul. Then Zac got divorced, released a panned solo album and an underwhelming album with the band, and now his new label Warner has told him to make some money. Return our investment, earn back our advance…

And so it comes to pass that the new ZBB album is called The Comeback, which may as well be called the Come to the Bank album. They’ll make their money from touring, not record sales as they did in the late-2000s, and so new songs need to slot into the old repertoire, like Coldplay or Adele. It’s exactly what accountants think Zac Brown Band sounds like, which makes it less art and more commerce.

Opening track Slow Burn, written with Peach Picker Ben Hayslip, opens with a riff and some band harmonies over the drum pattern from Clocks by Coldplay, while Zac sings about ‘young love and the radio’. The middle eight is the most interesting part of the song, rescuing it from being ploddy.

We were treated to that song and several others to whet fans’ appetites. Same Boat is Chicken Refried with a whistle solo, Old Love Song hops on the Frankenstein trend of naming lots of old songs in a brand new song, and Marcus King provides some blues guitar on the noodling, seven-minute Stubborn Pride, which is probably there to show long-time fans that the new label respects the jam. Out In The Middle was written with Luke Combs and you can tell, with plenty of rural signposts as well as being in Luke’s favourite key of D-flat major. The middle eight is the most interesting part of the song, rescuing it from being ploddy.

Praise be, Wyatt Durette is back in the songwriting room for several tracks on the album. There’s the warm ballad Wild Palomino, with its a cappella second verse and lush harmonies, the throwaway beach jam Paradise Lost On Me and title track The Comeback, where ‘if you hit rock bottom, the only way is up’ means more when you realise Zac went through a tough divorce relatively recently. Wyatt also helps out his old chums on the rifftastic GA Clay (which bursts into uncredited gospel vocals in the middle) and Don’t Let Your Heart, another carpe diem song which closes the album with a flourish that reminds me of The Band.

As seems to be popular on mainstream albums, a black performer features and, here, is credited! It’s Gregory Porter on Closer To Heaven, a marvellous midtempo ballad where they sing ‘goodbye to sad songs and hello to moving on’. Gregory may well have played similar festivals to Zac, like Bluesfest in London, so it’s not as wild a pairing as you’d think. The middle eight on this song anchors it nicely. Expect to hear it on the Radio 2 playlist by March.

Elsewhere, Any Day Now and Love & Sunsets both sound like classic ZBB ballads with plenty of heart and pretty arrangements – and probably the result of Warner Music asking for them as the contract stipulates – while and Us Against the World is a reminscin’ song with some heavy riffing and a wide-open chorus which would make it a decent radio single (the middle eight is great too).

Fun Having Fun, a surefire live favourite for their next tour, opens with a party horn and continues in a carpe diem fashion, with a superb instrumental middle section which briefly accelerates and catches the listener off guard.

Clearly The Comeback is the band’s best and most cohesive album in years, because it mimics what sold for the band at the start of their career. Whether by accident or design, or because Zac needs a lot of money to replenish his bank account, this is a great 54 minutes of music. James Daykin of Lyric Magazine has thanked him ‘for not being a dick anymore’; I would like to add thanks to Warner Music for helping remove that dickishness. Cash, as ever, is king.

Country Jukebox Jury EPs: Lily Rose, Emilia Quinn and Erin Enderlin

October 18, 2021

Lily Rose – Stronger Than I Am EP

Signed to Big Loud, Lily has been building fans throughout the year with her songs Villain, where she agrees to take the blame if that’s what makes her ex happy, and the melodically strong Remind Me of You, the latter written by four writers including Sam Hunt and ERNEST. Well done to Big Loud for letting a woman sing how ‘she don’t remind me of you’.

Joey Moi, who helped sculpt first Florida Georgia Line’s sound then Morgan Wallen’s, has kept the guitars in the mix along with contemporary sonic beds across the tracks.

As is the case with new acts, songs have been plucked off the shelves for her. We’ve also heard both I Don’t Smoke and Stronger Than I Am, pieces of self-actualisation and keeping on’ through despair. The syncopated delivery on the former makes me think of both Hunt and Wallen, while the melodic chorus (over digital drums) sounds like country radio. It’ll do well live, even if the chorus is a double negative, as Lily Rose finds new ways to say ‘You know I will’.

Lily Rose co-writes the final three songs on the EP: Know My Way Around, written with One Direction and Thomas Rhett collaborator Julian Bunetta and seemingly putting Lily’s life in a song; Breakin’ In opens with a verse where Lily wants to move on ‘breakin’ in this broken heart’, which seems a mixed metaphor because you break in NEW shoes, not old ones; and Whole Lotta Hometowns, a country-by-numbers tune that would have had Keith Urban-style production in 2002 but now has digital cymbals and all the modern trappings of country music.

It’s a great voice and Lily can direct her career to her liking, helped by the people who made Morgan Wallen ‘too big to fail’.

Emilia Quinn – Medicate EP

English singer Emilia told Lyric Magazine that she cried while recording the four tracks on her new EP. The tears were ‘closure’, of ‘being able to let go’ of the songs, and the cover of the EP shows her submerged like Ophelia in the Millais painting.

Her anxiety has provided fuel for her songwriting. High sounds like the Radio 2 playlist, with a brilliantly melodic chorus in which she wants to let her ‘vices take over’. The production is superb, especially in the double-tracked final chorus.

It is stark to hear three songs in triple-time. Worse Than Whiskey is a pedal-steel-rich tune on which Emilia sighs that ‘it’s hard to break through to your emotions’. The almost emo Pretty Pink Pills, which opens with audible tears, describes the beta blockers which she takes to cope with her mental health struggles, while Head Rush is sung tenderly to match how ‘your touch gives me life’. 

This is supremely emotional music, which makes it country music with a folky tinge. I also recommend Girl Talk, a kickass countrywide collaboration with a variety of singers including Jade Helliwell and Emma Moore.

Erin Enderlin – Barroom Mirrors

A sort of songwriter’s songwriter who has a fan in Tanya Tucker, Erin’s new six-track EP was trailed by three singles, all of which I loved.

Somebody’s Shot of Whiskey includes a fiddle solo from Jenee Fleenor, some excellent vocal harmonies and a bumper sticker of a line that underlines the love between Erin and her partner. The heartbreak waltz If I’m Not In Hell reminds me of Brandy Clark in its lyrical expertise (‘I’ve never felt this empty in the middle of the day’), while If There Weren’t So Many Damn Songs is a country song about country songs that make it difficult to escape songs about barrooms and jukeboxes. Terri Clark adds her pipes to that song while Rosanne Cash guests on Cut Through Me, a song full of fiddle and imagery to denote the pain she feels. I especially love the line about roses reclaiming graveyards.

When I’m Drinking Whiskey is a timeless barroom lament where Erin says ‘this broken heart’s busy’ drowning its sorrows: ‘I’ve hit the bottom of way more than just this glass’ is a super line. The EP’s title track is a similar lament about how mirrors ‘tell the truth’ about ‘all the things you can’t undo’.

This is a cohesive set of songs full of rich instrumentation and country topics. More people should know a name which is respected and cherished, in the category of Gretchen Peters or Brandy Clark. That’s a writers round I’d love to see!

Country Jukebox Jury LP: Old Dominion – Time, Tequila and Therapy

October 12, 2021

This isn’t a country album…It’s Shane McAnally Country, named after the successful ambassador for music in Nashville whose goal is to make money for the label whose act he has been entrusted to produce. Shane also runs his own imprint, Monument, who have hit big with Fancy Like by Walker Hayes. I would expect Walker to go out on the road with Old Dominion next year to capitalise on his success.

Experienced songwriters Brad, Trevor and Matt, together with bassist Whit and drummer Geoff, have done very well for themselves since Old Dominion broke through with their debut album Meat and Candy. They share management with Kenny Chesney and are good mates with Phil Vassar, which tells you what they sound like: country-inflected pop-rock with lots of soul and heart.

Recorded in North Carolina over a period of three weeks, this fourth album sounds like Old Dominion. No throat-singing or bagpipes here, as Matt Jenkins, McAnally and Josh Osborne help to shape the studio sound of a band whose music has been all over country radio since Break Up With Him broke them. One Man Band was the ACM Song of the Year while the album it came from, their self-titled third one, was up for CMA Album of the Year.

It’s odd that I didn’t love the third record as much as I did Happy Endings, the superlative second album which included live set mainstays No Such Thing As A Broken Heart, Hotel Key and Written In The Sand. Perhaps it was the fact that, as a pandemic project, they replaced the vocal tracks of album three with Matt going ‘meow’ that put me off, but it did show how strong the melodies of songs like Some People Do were.

The album title comes from the opening line of No Hard Feelings, where Matt is ‘more messed up than I care to be’ after a breakup. He seems to sing his cares away, as if Kenny Chesney has read a self-help manual and seen a therapist (‘the sun keeps coming up, baby, and I’m still breathing’). It’s good songwriting even if the bass slide is a little annoying.

The presence of tequila in the album’s title subtly reminds fans that the group have their own alcoholic beverage for sale, diversifying their portfolio in a time when this album will hardly sell any physical copies and they’ll earn back their advance through other means. They are a crack live band, as they showed in their weekly videos online recently, and the accordion-assisted song I Was On A Boat That Day will slot effortlessly into their show. I predict t-shirts bearing the line ‘drunk as a skunk eating lunch with a cross-eyed bear’.  

Opening track Why Are You Still Here, about the memory of a girl lingering, begins with ‘everybody’s drinkin’. It sounds like the sort of ballad that clogs up Maroon 5 records, complete with a singalong chorus and some hand percussion. Far better is Hawaii, which may be a memory of being with that girl, with suitably island-y guitar lines and Matt taking both ‘another cold beer from your brother’ and ‘pineapple rum out of a coconut’ and wondering why he and his belle left paradise; ‘on mainland, things ain’t the same, man’. This sounds like ‘third single summer jam’ radio smash, and those Old Dominion writers know how to craft a radio hit to fill the slots in between commercials.

Drinking My Feelings is a tongue-twisting tempo track where Matt sings ‘you can keep your 12 steps’, finding therapy through alcohol. There’s even some cowbell. Walk On Whiskey sounds like a John Mayer cut from one of his early albums, with melancholy in the chorus: ‘They used to call us the life of party but now the party’s over way too soon’. This is an album for adults, with flecks of country but which could well find a home for fans who like Adult Contemporary country of the sort that Keith Urban and Tim McGraw make.

In Something’s The Same About You, Matt spies an old friend drinking tequila and tries to rekindle something from the past. The production is very smooth and the song is based on a loop, without much variation between verse and chorus. This happens a lot on the album and it makes me want more variety in the tracks.

Time plays a role in Don’t Forget Me, where Matt pleads his ex to keep his memory in mind: ‘I’ll be right here where you left me’ could also be a plea to a friend or child. Having written a song about shoes, it’s only natural to work their way up the body; Blue Jeans is funky filler with a musical and lyrical nod to George Michael’s Faith. I wonder if they will interpolate the latter within the former in concert.

All I Know About Girls fits with the theme of time, as Matt claims to know ‘nothing at all’ about girls. I suppose this is one way of writing a song that fits the trend of The Pedestal, putting women front and centre in the man’s life. Gladys Knight, who lives in Asheville where the band recorded, was the obvious choice to accompany the band on Lonely Side of Town, where the band’s stacked harmonies make an appearance over another smooth groove. Perhaps history will remember Gladys as a country singer; Midnight Train To Georgia is at root a country song written by Jim Weatherly. I’ll overlook the age difference between the singers (maybe Mickey Guyton will appear on another version of the song).

I Wanna Live in a House With You Forever sounds vaguely Randy Newmanesque, like a sitcom theme tune with its many chords and a lyric full of tomatoes, jelly and ‘a couple rugrats singing Buckle My Shoe’. I like the way Matt leads into the second chorus (‘here comes the chorus on cue’) and how he packs the syllables into the line, a mark of a great writer. There is a double key change, so I suppose I got the variety I wanted!

Ain’t Nothing Wrong With Love closes the album with an insistent riff and a philosophical examination of human relationships: ‘eggs and bacon’, ‘Johnny had June’, ‘even that dish ran away with the spoon’. Old Dominion’s domestic concerns have made their way into their songs. It’s a companion piece to No Such Thing As A Broken Heart, with a fun kicker that I’m not going to spoil.

As always, there’s much to enjoy, although Brad Tursi must be disappointed not to get a lead vocal this time round. I am sure the royalties will help soften the blow.

Country Jukebox Jury LPs: Logan Mize, Olivia Lane and The County Affair

October 12, 2021

Logan Mize – Welcome to Prairieville

This is a cohesive collection of music indebted to American sounds (rock, Christian, pop) sung with conviction. George Strait Songs (‘by heart’) is a good place for this album to start, as Logan constructs a sort of Country Minecraft town called Prairieville. The backbeat is enormously thwacky and the vocal is smooth like that of Lee Brice or Mo Pitney. Jesus is mentioned in the chorus too.

The title track starts depressingly, with ‘for sale signs on just about everything’ but it’s ‘a pretty drive’. Logan is always pulled back in by the small town, and the music helps its cause, evoking rural America. ‘Some of the dust gets in your soul’ is a line that is as tremendous as the pedal steel solo is sweet. I can imagine George Strait having a number one with this in 1997.

River Road has one of my favourite sounds, a chugging electric-and-acoustic guitar overlaid rhythm that evokes Bob Harris Country (another one of my made-up genres). Logan reminisces about catching baseballs with Dad, rainstorms and hanging out, and I love how he draws the listener in with direct questions about their best memories. Follow Your Heart (‘right back to me’) is another well-produced chugger, as are the singalong pair of If You Get Lucky and We Ain’t Broke, the latter thanks to a groove which rides the cowbell!

I can’t believe there hasn’t yet been a song called Wine at the Church, Beer at the Bar but here it is. It’s a fun touch to start with the melody played on the organ, while every facet of rural life is spun through in the song, set to a looping riff. The organ comes back for the solo!

I Need Mike seems to be about friendship (‘the kind of guy that don’t laugh at your dreams’) which leads inexorably to the final verse about Mike’s passing. Tell The Truth is another thinker, with reference to someone ‘shining down’ on him. I Still Miss You has some heartland rock guitar and fine production, while Logan sings of being ‘too small town for big shows’. Gentle album closer It’s About Time starts philosophically, helped by a Mumford beat and an upwardly mobile chorus. It’s a record to cherish.

Olivia Lane – Heart Change

Olivia has rolled out a lot of this album in the modern style, with plenty of impact tracks released over a period of months. The songs are a result of a lot of introspection and therapy. I’ve been impressed with them, and her smooth vocal tone which is somewhere in between Jana Kramer and Carly Pearce. It’s less country than Adult Contemporary, aimed at grown-ups.

Olivia tells herself to stop living in her head and start ‘living instead’ on the track of that name. Nothing Changes is a series of challenges to her and to the listener, a sort of diary entry with the page left open, while I Let The Devil In is a spiritual conversation about how ‘misery loves company’ and has a very open arrangement with lots of echo on the vocal.

Woman At The Well skips along, with Olivia ‘drinking red wine all alone’ and lamenting her fate, ‘wondering how someone could love me when I can’t love myself’. Lauren Alaina has tackled these feelings on her last album, which makes this very topical. The title track preaches that ‘there’s a fine line between passion and hate’ and how it’s easier said than done to change yourself, which is ‘where the real fix comes’. It is one of several tracks which refer to ‘grace’ on the album, and the music is graceful overall, with lots of piano tinkling.

It’s a surprise to hear some poppy production on Sweet Sister (‘you got a good man’) and Why Don’t We, which reminds me of Suzanne Vega with the vocals right up front and lyrics about dancing too close ‘though we both know it’s a slippery slope’. Olivia wants the new friend to dive into love with her, and this will do very well in her live sets. It seems things have gone well, because the track Boy’s Still Got It follows along, with Olivia appreciating ‘his nonchalant air…he walks the walk, talks the talk’. It’s a wedding song supreme. Lois Lane, meanwhile, is a fun title because it’s the name of Olivia’s grandma who ‘found a Superman…in an Air Force uniform’.

The album ends with Break, a plea to be open with your emotions, to be ‘ready to change’. The album as a whole is full of emotion-driven pop songs, which in some ways can be classed as ‘country music’. I hope Olivia Lane finds her audience.

The County Affair – Off The Grid

How’s this for a tale, which I am sure is quoted in every review of the album Off The Grid: in the 1970s Tony and Kevin were The Rambling Boys, following Kevin’s dad, who was in a show band called The Moonshiners, onto the stage. The pair crossed paths in the States and played to crowds in Houston, Texas, before going West to San Francisco. They forsook music careers for the corporate lifestyle (a wise decision) with jobs in marketing and advertising, the latter with Quorn in quite a senior role.

Yet Kevin kept writing lyrics for Tony to write the music to, like a globetrotting Elton’n’Bernie, and in 2021 the pair have put together an album of rocking country music, using all that experience for half a century ago. I loved Nashville Storm Warning when I heard it earlier in the year; it’s another one of those songs which compare women to meteorological phenomena (with sound effects), driven by a lovely riff.

Off The Grid is similarly rockin’, a young man’s tale of living ‘nice and simple’ with a pretty solo in the middle, while Every Ghost (‘has a story’) is a great lyric which includes the line ‘cardboard cold life’ sung with a simple melody set to a chugging beat. It sounds like The Waterboys, another Celtic country-rock act.

There’s reminiscin’ on Beach (‘You said I had two left feet, better than one!’ is a nice punchline) and despair on Bourbon Breakfast, which is a hell of a title. The Seaview Inn is shot through with melancholy, with a wake taking place in the second verse and irony in the title because ‘there’s no views’ from the bar.

Often the melodies stick rigidly to the chord progressions, which means you can predict a lot of the shapes, as on Lying Next To Me (‘the truth’s all plain to see’) and The Waitress, where we see ‘cocky’ musicians through the eyes of the title character. The track which gives the duo its name opens with the line ‘Eight-track still played some old Johnny Cash’. There’s a nifty spoken word verse that sums up the ‘story of the county affair’, which is a sort of Ode to Billie Joe, full of mystery.

The album is full of accordion, which sounds great on that title track and on Playing Poker (‘I know I’ll bet again’), which is a proper roots-rock tune. It’s also sprinkled on top of Baby, a mournful tune, and is granted a welcome solo on album closer Go Tell Your Father, a proper Irish diaspora tune about leaving home or staying there. It ends on an interrupted cadence, which is the most musically fascinating thing on an album where the lyrics and music are in perfect harmony.

Country Jukebox Jury LP: Brandi Carlile – In These Silent Years

October 12, 2021

Every time I see the name Brandi Carlile, who along with Tim and Phil Hanseroth has been making fine, critically acclaimed music for 15 years, I think of an anecdote Marissa Moss told about three years ago. At a concert, a chap who didn’t know who she was gradually grew interested in Brandi’s music. ‘Hot damn,’ he began and by the end of the gig he was yelling ‘HOT DAMN! HOT DAMN!’ Even Brandi herself saw the message, which coincided with the success of her album By The Way, I Forgive You.

I had a similar reaction when I saw a video of her song The Joke, which I felt put her in the Jason Isbell class of contemporary performer. Country radio won’t touch her as she uses weird phrasing and long words, but satellite radio and Radio 2 have loved her. Like Radiohead, listeners hopped along for the ride and have embraced what she and the twins have been doing, which was a sort of definitive, emotion-and-storyteller American music like John Prine, Dean Dillon or Tom T Hall. The Eye (‘you can dance in a hurricane but only if you’re standing in the eye’) was my introduction to her sound, which had Brandi and the twins harmonising beautifully with lyrics about survival.

Since then she has definitely become the Mom figure of the genre known as Americana; with the passing of her hero John, Brandi keeps the pilot light flickering for a genre that barely existed when she started out, a genre of misfit toys for people without a genre, like her good friend Yola and the likes of Amythyst Kiah. Unsurprisingly, Brandi was named Artist of the Year (beating Isbell) at the Americana Awards recently, regaining the title she won in 2019 (beating Mavis Staples!). In 2018 she had lost out to John himself. She was also a quarter of the Highwomen, touring with the ladies and putting out a wonderful album.

And so, with relatively little fanfare, Brandi’s new album comes to market. She has a fan in Stephen Colbert, on whose Late Show she performed Hello In There as a tribute to John and promoted her memoir Broken Horses, in which she told her story of growing up and learning who she was. She has the iconoclast badge thrust upon her because there aren’t many openly gay parents in country music, but she is truly blazing the same trail that kd lang, Lucinda Williams and Isbell all blazed.

Right On Time was the impact track from the album, a torch ballad that may well become a modern standard. As she had done on The Joke, she addresses someone directly (‘of course you are…you’re the strongest person in the room’) and delivers a quivering vocal over a piano line which follows her vocal. More layers are added as the song continues and this will pack a punch when she tours the album. She and the twins head to Carnegie Hall in November to perform Joni Mitchell’s album Blue.

It’s hard not to think of Joni when you hear You and Me on the Rock, featuring duo Lucius, which is a love song featuring lashings of harmony. The middle eight is particularly good. When You’re Wrong also flutters and talks about time passing (‘tomorrow you’re a ghost…you forgot yourself so long ago’) in a manner of which Joni would approve. The album closes with Throwing Good After Bad, a song about grief and love. The use of the word ‘coyote’ must be another allusion to Joni, who had a song with that title.

I wonder if Brandi will join Joni in the pantheon of singer/songwriters. A song like Stay Gentle, which may close her gigs until the end of time, is a positive example. Instead of hardening the heart with age, why not stay innocent, she asks. It’s a deliberately simple song in the same tenor as Somewhere Over The Rainbow. Conversely, the political Sinners, Saints and Fools references immigration and doing things ‘by the book’. It’s a thesis in a song, with the album’s rockiest moments. Brandi has added Shooter Jennings to the production team thanks to their work on Tanya Tucker’s last album, which means Dave Cobb has a buddy at the desk.

Brandi’s memoir gives the song Broken Horses its title, and seems to distil Brandi’s credo in a song. There is plenty of lyricism: we get ‘puppetmaster’s rules’, ‘lukewarm water’ and ‘tried and weathered woman’ who is ‘tethered in wide open spaces’ over a bluesy progression (see what I mean by long words that would put off country radio listeners). She told Stereogum that she doesn’t really do emotions except onstage, where she channels them into her music. This might be her gift.

This Time Tomorrow is about ageing, perhaps a song to Brandi’s children that doubles as a song to any grieving listener: ‘You will know what it means to be lost and without love’ is a killer, true line, which is followed by cooing harmonies from Brandi and the twins. Mama Werewolf is another song rich in poetic language: ‘long, sharp teeth’, ‘river of fear’, ‘moon shines through those parting clouds’, ‘my silver bullet in the gun’, ‘they fought the beast I feel within’…It’s very John Prine or John Cash, even Bob Dylan, though I am sure Brandi would shrug those comparisons off.

Letter To The Past, the song which will become known as the ‘stone wall in a world of rubber bands’ song, includes more advice to ‘let it go’ over piano chords. I reckon it will follow The Joke in her live shows to bring the pace down. I hope to go see her and the twins if and when she comes to the UK in 2022.

Country Jukebox Jury LP: Trace Adkins – The Way I Wanna Go

October 12, 2021

90 minutes of music, with contributions from Pitbull, Snoop Dogg and Stevie Wonder, makes me think that this a hodgepodge even before I hear it. Trace is best known for the ballad You’re Gonna Miss This, and also being quite mean to women, and also winning the All-Star Celebrity Apprentice.

His new, exhausting album begins with Where I Am Today, a Peach Pickers track that’s one of their thinkers, as Trace sings of ‘sacred ground’, ‘a goodnight kiss’ and ‘staring at the sunsets a little longer’. Luke Bryan or Blake Shelton probably had this, and many of the album’s tracks, on hold. Trace is in their vein, a country boy singing about life.

Similarly, Barry Dean and Brothers Osborne wrote The Way I Wanna Go, which mature performer Trace picked off the shelf. I would love to hear TJ duet with Trace, as their voices complement each other well. The brothers also wrote the fun Big from Trace’s 2020 EP Ain’t That Kind of Cowboy, which at six songs was too short. Here, the album is too long, and it’s a shame that there are eleven tracks after The Way I Wanna Go, which would make a closer for a tight collection. Perhaps you can Choose Your Own Trace Adkins Adventure if you cherrypick your favourites.

Country signifiers are plentiful on the ploddy rocker Cowboy Boots and Jeans. Jon Nite, Michael Hardy, Zach Crowell and Hunter Phelps churn out songs every day that namecheck Carolina and California like Somewhere In America, which Trace sings admirably. The Randy Montana co-write Jesus Was a Hippie is a meaningful conversation in a bar that Trace sells really well. Trace himself co-wrote It All Adds Up To Us, where ‘two soft hands and two that are rough’ are compared to other things which make a perfect pair.

There’s a lot of great imagery on Careful Girl, the kind of song the radio doesn’t play in 2021 but which has the hook ‘you’re gonna wind up in a song’. Empty Chair sounds like a classic and will appeal to men who have watched Trace at a US Overseas show. There’s plenty of pathos on You’re Mine, an old-fashioned country melody with a fine vocal performance and a lyric about letting the past be the past, and I Should Let You Go, which sounds like a Garth showstopper.

Love and stuff is also represented on the album by Heartbreak Song, where Trace keeps turning the dial to find a song ‘to share my pain’; Finding My Groove, a middle of the dirt road ballad with soft acoustic guitar and a rhyme ‘needle on vinyl/rescue-me revival’; Live It Lonely (‘if I lost my one and only’); Cowboy Up, a neat song where Trace pinches himself at how lucky he is to have his belle; and Honey Child (‘I’m gonna love you old school’), which uses the backing vocalists expertly.

A collaboration between Paul Overstreet, Kendall Marvell and Dan Auerbach led to Cadillac’n, a charming driving song where ‘baby’s on my right, wind in her hair’. Alt-rock pinup Melissa Etheridge duets on the power ballad Love Walks Through The Rain, a song co-written by Marla Cannon-Goodman with orchestral flourishes. Memory To Memphis features a harmonica solo from Stevie Wonder and bluesy wailing from Keb Mo, while Trace tells about his trip across America to get an ex out of his mind.

It’s a Good Thing I Don’t Drink has Trace pleading his own defence on ‘a harmless joke’ between three friends. It includes the word ‘fornicators’ in the chorus, which is a very Trace Adkins word. Like Toby Keith, he’s the kind of guy (at least in her persona) who doesn’t take any prisoners. Another standout track, which first appeared on a 2011 album, is If I Was a Woman (‘I’d love a man like me!’), where Trace and his great mate Blake Shelton trade quips over a sort of honkytonk Buble sound.

Got It Down was gifted to him by Craig Wiseman. Trace is ‘still hanging tough for another round’, chuckling to himself before a verse dedicated to his ‘baby’ and the arguments they have. Like Toby, Trace’s voice is full of character and I wish some of the contemporary voices had even HALF as much. I love the ad libs at the end of the song too, as Trace demands ‘a big old country-and-western ending…not exactly what I had in mind’. The album closer Welcome To is another Wiseman co-write (perhaps rejected by Blake?) which frames a visit to a small town as ‘between the Welcome To and the Y’All Come Back’.

I wonder if Snoop Dogg has heard of Hank Williams and George Jones, who are both namechecked on the duet So Do The Neighbors, which may well use the same backing track as Where My Country Girls At, the dopey tune with Pitbull and Luke Bryan collecting a big cheque for doing not very much. Similarly silly is Low Note, where Trace advises the listener to tell their boss to shove it and ‘leave ‘em on a low note’, matching the lyric with his deep vocal tones.

No Trace Adkins fan will complain about hearing 25 tunes. Morgan Wallen has spent most of this year enjoying the fruits of his 30-track album, while Jason Aldean is preparing a hybrid 30-track set with 20 originals and 10 live versions of his hits. The future is music, and lots of it, and Trace is in on the act too. He’s got plenty of gigs lined up in 2022. I wish he’d find time to come to the UK!

Country Jukebox Jury LPs: Jon Randall and Sam Grow

October 12, 2021

Jon Randall LP

The man who wrote Whiskey Lullaby and Tin Man hasn’t put out music under his own name since the mid-2000s. Jon is beloved by many in Music City and I wouldn’t hesitate in calling him an heir to the Guy Clark style of lyrical songwriting. He is well known as a producer for Dierks Bentley, Parker McCollum and his wife Jessi Alexander, and was one-third of the gang who put out The Marfa Tapes in May 2021 (whose concert for Austin City Limits went out on October 2).

Having initially put out an EP, Jon’s self-titled set contains nine tracks which showcase his art. Ranchero stands out because it’s a two-minute instrumental that shows Jon’s chops as a guitarist who has played with Lyle Lovett and Emmylou Harris. Girls From Texas, written with Shane McAnally, was a duet between Lyle and Pat Green a decade ago where the argument is that there are fine girls everywhere in America; ‘girls from Texas are just a little bit better’. No explanation is necessary and Jon ropes in Jack Ingram for assistance.

Jon has picked tunes which are less Nashville and more Red Dirt, full of gravitas and depth. Opener Keep On Moving is a troubadour’s song by a narrator who doesn’t care what other people think (I wonder if it’s autobiographical). The Road sits at the end of the album as a sort of ring composition, a trucker’s hymn full of imagery and character. The UK government should use it as an anthem to encourage people to take up truck driving.

Driving To Mexico also takes place on the road, ‘driving till I run out of gas, out of luck, out of road, out of time’, trying to shake the memory of an ex. Perhaps it’s the girl in Tequila Kisses he is trying to escape. The song is gorgeous, full of reminiscin’ about a riverbank romance with a girl speaking ‘in broken English’, implying that Spanish is her first language and making tequila a sort of metonym for a Mexican woman.

The solo acoustic Acapulco Blue is another reminiscin’ song where Jon tells of playing music for tips to buy rock records and gasoline. Now the car of the title is worn and rusted, ‘memories I’ve lost’ stored up in the glovebox. That is one hell of a line, from a master craftsman.

Streets of Dallas is full of loneliness, helped by Jerry Douglas’s dobro. Jon is ‘down to my last 20 bucks’ having pawned his guitar watching ‘two strangers getting high’ and feeling the rain from a raging storm. Velvet Elvis Buzz includes a well-placed swear word with Jon seemingly addicted to a woman who serves to ‘trash my house and kiss me…You taste like nicotine, sweat and sweet perfume’. It’s a real turn of events for Jon, and he seems locked in a groove. I’d love to see him do it live, and with his friend Miranda due in Europe next spring, I hope he can hop on the bus too.

You can hear my chat with Jon as part of my In The Red Dirt show on ARC Radio here until October 26. h

Sam Grow – This Town

Several top songwriters help Sam write 11 of the 12 tracks on an album which introduces me to a fab new voice who opened for Tyler Farr a few years ago. This is Sam’s third album, whose title track opens it up. There’s a mix of squealing guitars, real snare drums and a fine melody which takes the trope of ‘this town loves to talk’ and adds four familiar chords to it. I adored Song About You when I first heard it, with its E Street Band circa The Rising feeling, and I like the effortless, frothy melody of Bar Last Night.

The songtitles are punchy as the guitars and lyrics which show personality and attitude, Colt Ford-style; Colt, who produces the album, wrote ur-Bro Country tune Dirt Road Anthem which Jason Aldean. Me and Mine is full of raised cups, skinning catfish and deer and how ‘Bocephus got it right’ about country boys. Sam sounds like Tyler Farr on Boy Like Me, a power ballad which could have gone to radio at any time in the last 20 years. Ditto Better Than Me, a moving-on song where Sam hopes his ex’s new beau is an improvement on Sam himself, as he puts himself down. On You Ain’t Gone he spots his ex’s ‘old shampoo, hairbrush and makeup’ after she left him. It’s basically 7500 OBO by Tim McGraw without the truck.

Go Right Now is another of those songs where the singer does country stuff with his Dad in the first two verses and then sees him die in the third. (Oh, come on, don’t shoot the messenger: country music templates are as old as time itself and I grabbed a tissue just after the first chorus!) This will be a key song in his live set, which UK-based country fanatics would love.

Grew Up Red ticks off those country signifiers as a thousand other songs do: ‘dirty work, honest dollar…calloused hands’ and messing around on tailgates. It even rhymes boots/roots in a way that I think is mandatory in a song of this type. Still, it’s three chords and the truth and that’s country. Kiss My Ass is another song like a thousand others, preaching loyalty to the American flag and not brooking any argument. You can imagine the guitar chords even before you hear them; it’s the country equivalent of putting ‘devil’s chords’ in a heavy metal song about Satan.

Texan songwriter Terry McBride helps Sam write the gentle Little House, where ‘it don’t take a mansion to find what’s really important in life’. It’s a triple-time ode to small-town life where Jesus pops up in the second verse. The album ends with Whiskey Bound, a ‘pour me another one’ song that could be sung by Matt Stell, Mitchell Tenpenny or Chris Young, country radio catnip where the schlub mourns another one gone.

Sam Grow might get less radio play than these major-label heartthrobs, but there’s much to enjoy on This Town.

Ka-ching With Twang – Scott Borchetta Country, Part Four

October 11, 2021

In the first two parts, I introduced Scott and the talent he pushed on Big Machine, including Thomas Rhett and Taylor Swift. In the third part, I talked about the variety of acts signed to the group’s labels, including some Legacy Acts. The final part deals with the sale of Big Machine and where the label stands in 2021…

Track 7 Big Machine Today

2021 saw the release of the third album by an act who opened up for Lady A in 2019. Carly Pearce got her start singing Dolly Parton songs at Dollywood and her 29: Written In Stone project has moved her from a so-so artist to a big hitter. Every Little Thing was her first number one in 2017, and in 2019 she took a Luke Combs co-write I Hope You’re Happy Now to the top.

Also in 2021, Big Machine had three successive number ones at radio: Thomas Rhett’s What’s Your Country Song, which hopped on the trend that saw songs name other songtitles to form a new song; Lady by Brett Young, a song dedicated to his daughter and his wife in equal measure; and Long Live, a Florida Georgia Line song by numbers. TR’s album Country Again, like Lady A’s new album, has been delivered in two parts, as Big Machine realise fans like lots of music in bursts rather than waiting too long for them as a full album.

Oddly, for C2C 2022, only Brett Young is on Big Machine of the acts announced for the main stage. Teenage act Callista Clark will, however, play the B-stage in London on the Saturday, so I expect she’ll press flesh and do a lot of gigs onsite for her first C2C. She was born in 2003, the year before Taylor Swift sent her demo to Scott Borchetta, and her song It’s Cause I Am has spent most of 2021 in the Country Airplay chart (as I write this the song is at 25).   

Among current label employees is Flo Myerscough-Harris, daughter of DJ Bob. She works as a Label Assistant in Big Machine’s UK base. It was underreported that Hybe bought the holding company that runs Big Machine in April 2021. Talking business means I must rehearse the argument between Scott and Taylor Swift back in 2019, headlined ‘Let the games begin!’ by Rolling Stone who reported on the feud.

That holding company, Ithaca, was owned by Scooter Braun, the manager of Justin Bieber and Dan + Shay, which is why 10,000 Hours was not as surprising a collaboration as you’d think. In November 2018, Taylor Swift became a free agent after 13 years and six albums with Scott Borchetta, opting for Republic Records who are now helping her re-record those six albums. Following Fearless earlier this year, 1989 comes out in November. This was the album that won Album of the Year at the GRAMMY Awards, her first proper pop album which was mostly a collaboration with Max Martin and Shellback. We’ve already heard the new version of Wildest Dreams which isn’t wildly different from the original but fans are encouraged to listen to that new version.

Scott was forced to defend himself on the Big Machine website with a blogpost in which he confirmed that his offer to extend the deal in 2018 was ‘extraordinary…She chose to leave’. In June 2019, Ithaca bought Big Machine and thus the masters, which means today Taylor Swift’s masters are owned by the guys who run BTS’s career.

As for Big Machine themselves? Their big priorities include the aforementioned Callista Clark, while Bob Harris has been playing tunes by Laci Kaye Booth, former oilfield worker Heath Sanders (basically Luke Combs) and the long-haired ‘retro contemporary’ Brock Gonyea in recent months, who reminds me of former Big Machine act Drake White, another casualty of the Dot Records shuttering. Drake was perhaps a few years ahead of his time. He’d fit right in with Riley Green, whose soppy songs like I Wish Grandpas Never Died and tempo tracks like There Was This Girl are Luke Combs pastiches. Tyler Rich, meanwhile, is Brett Young with a different face.

Realising there needs to be at least one non-white act on the label, Scott has signed the excellent Tiera and the teenage country poppet Kidd G, whose debut album Down Home Boys seems to be targeted at 14-25-year-olds attracted to digital drum loops, as appear on the title track. It is a deal with many hands, including Florida-based Rebel Music and Geffen, the same label that brought the world Olivia Rodrigo. ‘Kidd is a Southern boy who will blur and ultimately stretch format lines,’ gushed Scott on Big Machine’s involvement. Expect to hear Kidd’s music on country radio alongside the likes of 7500 OBO by Tim McGraw – who has returned to Big Machine after a difficult year elsewhere – and the terrific waltz Sunrise Tells The Story by Midland.

Irritatingly for Big Machine, their other teen-targeted band Avenue Beat are bringing out their debut farewell album on October 15, announcing their split before it has even been released. They are best known for F2020, where they complain about the pandemic in a poppy way.

On the Big Machine website, there is a page titled Music Has Value which sends users to the charity arm of the label. Fifteen grants of $10,000 are to be given to people who want a start in the music industry ‘in both rural and urban areas’. One of those went to United Sound, which helps music education for special needs students. I suppose when you have made millions you have to give some of them away.

Scott Borchetta remains one of the most impressive executives in Music City. I am sure when he writes his memoir it will be full of stories which place him side by side with Taylor Swift, the artist who succeeded as music became digital rather than physical. His role as CEO of Big Machine is as much a sinecure as anything else, a position of grandeur which means he can add his expertise as a sort of hyperconsultant. Thomas Rhett is the homegrown star while Tim McGraw and Lady A (as they are now called) are acts who make music that sounds eerily close to their greatest hits.

That, after all, is where the money is made these days: not the recordings, but the performance. Now that the people behind K-Pop ultimately own Nashville’s country stars, expect some terrific music as Music City opens itself up to the world. Scott, of course, is delighted that he still has new worlds to conquer.

You can listen to all four parts in one place here.

Ka-ching With Twang – Scott Borchetta Country, Part Three

October 10, 2021

In the first two parts, I introduced Scott and the talent he pushed on Big Machine, including Thomas Rhett and Taylor Swift. In the third part, I talk about the variety of acts signed to the group’s labels, including some Legacy Acts…

Track 5 All Things To All People

Because of all these blokes, it seemed almost calculated that a response record of sorts would become a talked-about discussion point at the end of 2014. Girl in a Country Song was released by Maddie & Tae, who signed onto the Dot Records imprint of Big Machine. The song namechecked various trends spotted by Grady Smith and published in a famous viral video; he noticed that country stars called girls ‘girl’, drove to the nearest riverbank and told the objects of their affection to ‘slide’ over in their ‘cut-off jeans’. Unfortunately label politics meant that it took many years for the girls to follow up their first album, by which time they were both married. They now have a home on Mercury Nashville, alongside Chris Stapleton.

The Shires were also signed to the imprint and Scott showed them off in a 2017 BBC documentary on the rise of country music. Country2Country had begun in the early 2010s and, year on year, had attracted more fans to Greenwich, me included. Big Machine had a booth in the Town Square offering grip’n’grins with acts, goodie bags and competitions, and it is no coincidence that a Big Machine act has been on the main stage every year. Tim McGraw and Brantley Gilbert showed up in 2013, Rascal Flatts in 2014, Brantley in 2015 and both Maddie & Tae and Thomas Rhett in 2016.

Also on the main stage in 2015, right in the middle of Peak Bro Country, were Kip Moore, Jason Aldean and Florida Georgia Line. At the time FGL were on a joint deal with Republic and Big Machine which also had The Band Perry, Martina McBride and Sunny Sweeney on its roster, but were fully on the latter for their third album Dig Your Roots. It included a collaboration with the Backstreet Boys (God, Your Mama, And Me) and the groups would also appear on a CMT Crossroads show together. Cruise remains one of the songs of the century so far, and I don’t know how much money it made for Scott Borchetta. The duo kept releasing music to diminishing returns; in 2021, Tyler Hubbard is preparing a solo career and in 2020 teamed up with Tim McGraw for Undivided, a plea for universal brotherhood which they performed on a telecast to celebrate the inauguration of President Joe Biden.

Scott Borchetta’s politics are not something we really know, but it is interesting that Aaron Lewis, formerly of the band Staind, is signed to Big Machine. ‘I believe in the First Amendment. My job has never been to tell my artists what to sing and write about,’ Scott wrote in a letter published, humorously, by Bob Lefsetz, the man Taylor Swift wrote Mean about. ‘To just “cancel” Aaron is ridiculous,’ wrote Scott, because ‘Aaron’s message is speaking to millions of people…Be loud and be heard.’ Incredibly, the song Am I The Only One hit number one with no radio promotion.

Aaron is one of many rock acts affiliated to Big Machine. The Cadillac Three are led by Music Row songwriter Jaren Johnston and put out bluesy-rock albums which connect with live audiences. Tucker Beathard’s song Rock On is a ballad full of regret that did well at radio; Tucker’s dad Casey is another fine Music Row writer. Steven Tyler of Aerosmith put out an album on Dot Records in 2016 featuring the powercharged Red White and You (‘Bang bang baby like the fourth of July’); Jaren was one of the songwriters on that project.

Track 6 Icons

New wave band Cheap Trick also signed to Big Machine on a three-album deal between 2016 and 2017, though they returned to BMG for their recent release. Scott was pictured with Motley Crue in a publicity photo around the time he was mentoring contestants on American Idol. The Cheap Trick signing seemed to be part of the Borchetta strategy, signing up legacy brands to the label and looking after them in their twilight years. Wanda Jackson’s last album Encore was put out by Big Machine in collaboration with Blackheart, the label belonging to album producer Joan Jett.

Talking of legacy acts, Reba McEntire headlined C2C 2017 to promote her album Sing It Now, listed as Christian Country/ Gospel. Reba has aged out of country radio, which is really unkind to women over the age of 40, and spent many months in Las Vegas playing Fancy and other smashes. Reba was on MCA in the 1990s when Scott was there, but she told him that she was ‘done’ when he approached her in the 2010s. Scott managed to convince her to be the star artist on Nash ICON, which also housed Hank Williams Jr and Ronnie Dunn and was backed by another major organisation, Cumulus, who are key players in country music media. ‘Let’s play a new Reba next to an old Reba’ was his pitch for a new radio station (still on air as 95.5 NASH ICON), which led to a deal for new Reba tunes. 2019’s album Stronger Than The Truth was led by the single Freedom.

In the meantime, when it comes to new acts, Brett Young became the label’s token beefcake. His albums of adult contemporary country songs are precision targeted at women in the 25-54 demographic. Songs like Sleep Without You, Mercy and Like I Love You all dealt with masculine vulnerability. There is a Christmas EP on the way which follows an ordinary EP.

UK country fans will swoon to such songs at C2C 2022, where Brett returns having first visited in 2018 as part of a bill which included Tim McGraw and Faith Hill, who themselves put out an album of adult contemporary country songs precision targeted at women in the 25-54 demographic. One of them, The Rest Of Our Life, was written by Ed Sheeran.

At C2C 2018 were Sugarland, the duo who brought out their record on Big Machine which featured Taylor Swift collaboration Babe, and Midland, the fake country band featuring Fearne Cotton’s former flatmate and a guy who directed the video to John Mayer’s Last Train Home. Danielle Bradbery, who signed after success on The Voice, played the smaller stage. A deal with La’Porshe Renae, runner-up on American Idol, went nowhere, while The Voice winner Craig Wayne Boyd has been more successful making children (he has five of them) than as a recording artist, with his one hit My Baby’s Got a Smile on Her Face dropping off the charts entirely as a one-week wonder.

Brett’s ballad Here Tonight was written with Charles Kelley from Lady A, who played C2C 2019 as Big Machine artists and are about to release their second album on the label, titled What A Song Can Do. Notably the trio held a press conference at the event with members of country media where they spoke about being on the label, ‘a fresh new start for us’ and having lots of freedom in writing what they want to write according to Dave. Charles added: ‘They were supportive and encouraging for us to take our time and be a bit more honest.’ It didn’t hurt their status that Champagne Night, the song they worked on as part of NBC’s Songland show, did so well that it climbed all the way to number one on the Country Airplay chart, with the pandemic changing the promotion of their album Ocean.

(As a footnote, which is why this paragraph is in brackets, Scott brought a music show to Canadian TV called The Launch in 2018. A top artist like Shania Twain, Bryan Adams or Ryan Tedder would mentor a set of young acts who would all be given a pre-written song. Only one of the 12 songs was a hit on the Canadian charts.)

You can listen to a radio version of this piece here.

Ka-ching With Twang – Scott Borchetta Country, Part Two

October 9, 2021

In Part One, I introduce Scott and Big Machine, whose teenage superstar Taylor Swift impressed with her first few releases. In Part Two, she goes supernova.

Track 3 A Call To Max

For her next trick, Taylor Swift moved into the pop charts properly with songs that were more production driven. This was down to Scott, who felt that the album was like a country producer doing a pop song, which it was. Rather than Nathan Chapman at the desk doing his award-winning thing, Red needed that Max Martin feel from tracks like I Kissed A Girl. At Taylor’s instruction, he rang up Max himself and helped Taylor follow her muse. ‘I got you, let’s go,’ he told the Canadian Music Week interview. ‘The first rule of Taylor Club is: Don’t talk about Taylor Club,’ Scott said, shutting down a question about any of the subjects of her songs.

We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together was Taylor’s biggest UK hit since Love Story, which got to number four in 2009. Better still for Big Machine, who had already turned six Taylor Swift songs into top ten hits, it was Taylor’s first Hot 100 number one. She had broken into Lady Gaga’s stratosphere and it was time for Big Machine to expand their portfolio.

Scott and Big Machine helped Garth Brooks debut at number one with the song More Than A Memory, from his Greatest Hits – the phrase ‘game recognises game’ springs to mind – but Garth had his own streaming service on his mind and that was his only collaboration. Before they also went independent, The Mavericks put out two albums on Big Machine: Big Time (2013) and Mono (2015). The former features the lovely Back In Your Arms Again.

The big signing of the 2010s was Tim McGraw, who had finally extricated himself from his Curb Records deal and released Two Lanes of Freedom in 2013. At the time, Taylor was still (just) a country artist and she sang the hook ‘I can’t live without you baby’ on the Tim McGraw hit Highway Don’t Care, which featured a guitar solo from Keith Urban, himself an artist who had one foot in the pop market thanks to appearing in celebrity magazines with his wife ‘Nic’, Nicole Kidman. Taylor’s love life is well documented in such magazines and on record, and I am sure Scott encouraged this.

Interestingly, We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together was number one on the day country radio charts separated from the Hot Country chart. Thus there could be a sales number one and an airplay number one, and any plays on pop radio would count to a country song’s Hot Country position. This is why Cruise, Meant To Be and Burnin It Down all had long runs on that chart, whereas several songs could climb to the top on radio.

In 2011, Trigger at Saving Country Music first called Scott ‘the Country Music Antichrist’. He explained himself in a piece from June 2012. Scott had bent country to his will, diluting the ‘purity of genre terms’. How dare he call pop act Taylor and faux-outlaw Justin Moore country acts? When Taylor won the CMA Entertainer of the Year in 2009, he raised the white flag.

‘If the prototypical Music Row executive can be visualized as the gray-haired man with a steak-and-potatoes gut spilling out of his navy suit, then Borchetta is the in-shape, sleek guy in a tight-fitting black spandex shirt taking office Yoga breaks and ordering in sushi.

‘As the traditional labels in Nashville have been lethargic in their attempt to keep up with trends, Borchetta has been running circles around them, pilfering their talent rosters and penning historic deals that will re-shape the music industry for years to come.’

Aware of his reputation, Scott told American Public Radio in 2012 that he was ‘just the current one in a long line of being considered trying to kill country music…Our entire goal,’ he added, ‘is to make something that moves you.

‘If you don’t want to call it country, I don’t care. That doesn’t matter to me,’ is a perfectly sensible thing to say when you spent the first two decades of your life in California, where you learned about plugging records.

Always ahead of the curve, Scott signed a deal with the radio organisation Clear Channel (now iHeartMedia) which ‘will earn performance rights for his artists when they are played on the radio’. This was useful when Cruise was about to explode into the biggest country song of the decade so far. He also worked with the great Irving Azoff in a management company, which proves the depth of his connections in the industry.

4 Valory

As Taylor leapt across to pop with her album 1989, Scott needed to fill the gap on country radio where songs like Shake It Off, Blank Space and Bad Blood (all number one smashes on the Hot 100) couldn’t land. Of course Taylor’s country audience followed her to the pop charts but there needed to be young country singers who were inspired by the superstar who, according to journalist Chet Flippo, had brought this entirely new audience into the genre. Scott would counter that Jessica Andrews did something similar with Who I Am and, with other female artists falling off the rails, Taylor slid into the gap in the market with her acoustic pop.

In 2014, Brantley Gilbert brought his cutprice Aldean style into the charts with songs like Bottoms Up, from his second album Just As I Am. It also featured the song Small Town Throwdown, a rotten collaboration with labelmates Thomas Rhett, son of songwriter and co-writer of that song Rhett Akins, and Justin Moore, whose shtick was that he wore a cowboy hat.

Between the three of them, they kept Big Machine on the radio. Indeed, TR started his run of solo number ones with Get Me Some Of That, one of the many tunes where the protagonist complimented a girl in a bar. The first line of his hit Make Me Wanna from 2015 had the line ‘FM on the radio’ and a video of him grooving around in various outfits, while Crash and Burn took more inspiration from Sam Cooke’s Chain Gang than from tunes by any country act.

The song was co-written by Chris Stapleton, who would explode into national consciousness in the same year. Chris also wrote the pop-rock tune Keep On Lovin You by Big Machine signing Steel Magnolia, a number four hit in 2009. The duo had won CMT series Can You Duet but fizzled out due to personal problems.

TR’s Die A Happy Man, a shameless rewrite of Ed Sheeran’s Thinking Out Loud, ruled the opening three months of 2016, and I liked T-Shirt, a fun tune which namechecked Guns N’ Roses in the chorus. It wasn’t country in the slightest – nor was much of the album Tangled Up, from whence these songs came – but it still went to country radio because it was Scott Borchetta Country.

Lori McKenna gifted Tim McGraw (and Scott) the song Humble and Kind, which won awards and was turned into a picture book. I wonder if Scott was eyeing the moves of Dan + Shay, who had their first hits in 2015 under the auspices of manager Scooter Braun, closely. Shay Mooney co-wrote I Like The Sound of That, for Big Machine act Rascal Flatts, a song which namechecked Justin Timberlake in the first verse and had a middle eight with the line ‘turn your radio on’.

Justin Moore, meanwhile, took Lettin the Night Roll to the top which, as with Jack Ingram’s hit from 2005, had our hero driving a car. The lyric was about sunsets and girls looking ‘so damn good climbing up in my Chevy’ in a very contemporary style that filled radio slots in between commercials and helped shift concert tickets. His other number ones include Somebody Else Will and recent smash We Didn’t Have Much, the latter with more traditional country production and instrumentation as befits the current trend. Scott produced his last album Late Nights and Longnecks, which featured the singles The Ones That Didn’t Make It Back Home and Why We Drink.

Like TR and Brantley, Justin’s music is released by Valory Music, which was opened because Scott didn’t want 20 acts on one label, especially if they were all being pushed to country radio. The name is an alternative spelling of Valerie, the given forename of June Carter Cash, which inspired Scott.

You can listen to the show at Mixcloud here.

Katy Hurt, Islington Academy, October 7 2021

October 8, 2021

If The Shires and The Wandering Hearts are in the top tier of UK Country music, then just beneath them are three acts who are vastly experienced on record and in the studio.

Over 2021, with gigs at both Buckle & Boots and The British Country Music Festival, Tim Prottey-Jones has been honing a set which includes tunes like Fire, Until I Do and Good Life. He also brought out a cover of The Joke by Brandi Carlile, singing the first chorus a cappella and silencing a room that would chat all the way through Gasoline & Matches.

Tim’s tunes combine poppy hooks and wonderful vocals, and in a solo gig he had to point out where the guitar solos usually occurred. Tim, of course, is one of the gatekeepers of country radio thanks to his Chris Country Homegrown show, making him more than just mere talent, and he is openly grateful to the UK scene for embracing his music. Drinking For Three, his set closer and a middle finger to the obstetrician who told him he’d never become a dad (‘my son just turned three!’), sounds like a smash.

Sally and Steve, the duo who perform as Gasoline & Matches, played a set of softer songs which fit two acoustic guitars. Their 2021 has already included a studio version of Never Have I Ever, performed here with a dash of Fresh Prince of Bel Air. Old songs like The Artist, about a breakup, and Not Into Country show fine interplay between the vocalists and the guitars. Steve’s soloing was exceptional and he is an asset to the UK scene. They played a full band show Under The Bridge in Chelsea at Nash Nights, where it’ll be too loud for the crowd to talk over.

Katy Hurt headlined the wee venue in Islington which often puts on country acts (I’ve seen Phil Vassar do his thing there. I think she’ll headline a festival next year, after her appearance in Blackpool on the main stage. In 2016 I saw her perform at Buckle & Boots in the middle of the afternoon and was very impressed with how her voice floated over some heavy guitars and drums. With more years of gigging behind her, she is even more confident onstage as she celebrated the release of the first single from her debut album.

‘I’ve been waiting a decade!’ she gushed, but is still not a full-time performer, having to do lots of grunt jobs to pay the bills. She puts her experience into the aforementioned single Sounds Good In A Bar, with its four-note singalong riff proving a well-chosen first cut from the album. Judging by the rest of the set, there is a panoply of fine melodies, particular opener Believer. These sat alongside old chestnuts like See Ya Later, now with added dance moves, and Drink. At the end of one song Katy went right up to the top of her range, rivalling musical theatre pro Tim for expertise.

At one stage Katy lamented her decision to headbang while wearing lipgloss, with her long hair sticking to the makeup. The high point of the set came with her career song Unfinished Business, where she was overcome by emotion and had to compose herself before the second verse.

The band make a lot of noise, even if drummer Joe had a bit of Lars From Metallica syndrome, standing up to thwack the tom-toms. Gab Zsapka, whose lead guitar work rivals Steve’s, was sensational when he stepped a foot to the left to take a solo, with Katy shimmying away behind him.

When I look to compile my UK Country Festive Fifty in December, I will remember the showmanship and prowess Katy showed. Keep your eyes open for the album announcement from the hard-working, hard-Hurtin’ star.

Sounds Good In A Bar is available to stream and download now

Ka-ching With Twang – Scott Borchetta Country, Part One

October 8, 2021

What links these songs: Highway Don’t Care by Tim McGraw, Mean by Taylor Swift, In Case You Didn’t Know by Brett Young, Cruise by Florida Georgia Line, Die a Happy Man by Thomas Rhett and Rewind by Rascal Flatts?

They were all released on Big Machine Records.

One man is responsible for a genre which I am naming after him. It’s at the intersection point of pop, rock, country and even blues, and which he has monetised to an astronomical level. He even became the story at one point, when his star artist complained about selling on the masters of her recordings.

He is the music business equivalent of someone like Bill Belichick, the football coach who was behind the success of the New England Patriots, or Scott Rudin, the man who produced all the great movies of the last 40 years (The Social Network, Wes Anderson’s movies) and helped bring The Book of Mormon to Broadway. Let us not mention the allegations of very poor behaviour to his staff.

This series, which is also available to listen to here, comes in four parts.

Track 1 Who is Scott Borchetta?

Scott Borchetta grew up around the record business in California. His dad Mike was a plugger for acts on Capitol, Mercury and RCA Records, working with the Beach Boys among others. Given that those three labels had branches in Nashville, it was easy for Mike to move across to Music City in the late 1970s, especially because he had separated from Scott’s mum.

In a 2011 essay for the New York Times, Scott described how college ‘was not for me’ and ‘I was looking for a way out’ from playing in rock bands in LA. He visited his dad in Nashville and was briefly the bassist in a country band (‘almost as a dare’) before quitting because they were ‘going nowhere’. In the daytime he was a mailroom boy at his dad’s company, while coming up against club owners ‘who didn’t know the music business’.

Mary Tyler Moore had set up her own label, MTM Records, and Scott worked there for three years in the late 1980s. Like his dad he hopped between labels, working with Universal, MCA and DreamWorks. Scott tells his story in a Youtube video interview in conversation for the 2018  Canadian Music Week. At MCA Nashville ‘we did a billion dollars’ breaking acts like Vince Gill and working with ‘edgier’ acts like Marty Stuart, kd lang and Dwight Yoakam. At DreamWorks, he helped Randy Travis have some hit records.

Ultimately Scott grew ‘too involved in the creative process’ for some executives and was frustrated with the egotism of the discrete parts of a record company: ‘This executive can’t talk to you about publishing because they’re in marketing.’ Scott pats himself on the back for doing the grunt work on the road while his bosses stayed in the office: ‘You have to be on the street and see what moves people,’ he notes sagely.

Thus in 2005, following his dad’s example again, Scott went solo, with help from the money and influence of Toby Keith. He met the teenage Taylor Swift in 2004, having opened her demo package and having seen her at the Bluebird Café, ‘just completely knocked out at how smart she was at 15’ and how good the songs were.

She had a development deal with RCA but Scott convinced Taylor (‘the Michaelangelo of the era’) to sign with him a year later, after he had left Universal and set up his own label. He heard hit single potential in her song Picture To Burn, which made the tracklist of her debut album.

Alongside Taylor he took Danielle Peck with him after she was dropped from DreamWorks. She had three country hits including I Don’t and Findin’ A Good Man. The former is a power ballad produced by Tim McGraw’s longtime producer Byron Gallimore, who surrounds her twanging voice with middle of the dirt road acoustic-pop country. The latter is a tempo track with some insistent riffs, which had an accompanying music video that is very much within the mid-2000s style of hot girls and guys in a bar. The line ‘if you hear me, girls, raise your hand’ positions her in the Gretchen Wilson mould, because that was making a lot of money in around 2004.

Track 2 The Big Machine Cranks Into Gear

As Scott was developing teenage Taylor, he worked Jack Ingram at radio. Jack had put out six albums while touring the bars of Texas and was able to come to market in Nashville with a live greatest hits set which included a studio version of a new song called Wherever You Are. The music video makes clear that it’s a driving song because Jack is either in or leaning on a car while complaining that ‘I’m missing you’ as the desert wind blows. It’s the sort of alt-rock that made the charts in 2000, now pushed to a country audience. It worked, and the song was a number one in May 2006.

The charts that summer included songs by Jason Aldean (Why), Rodney Atkins (If You’re Going Through Hell), Brad Paisley (The World), Kenny Chesney (six-week number one Summertime), Dierks Bentley (Settle For a Slowdown) and, intriguingly, a version of Who Says You Can’t Go Home by Bon Jovi featuring Jennifer Nettles, whose band Sugarland would one day sign to Big Machine. The Wreckers had a smash with Leave The Pieces; they were a duo featuring one of those alt-rock acts from around 2000, Michelle Branch. Carrie Underwood was preparing her smash hit Before He Cheats, and Scott was preparing to launch his own Carrie. He also worked with Trisha Yearwood, Sunny Sweeney and Jewel.

I remember being up at Edinburgh in my second-year flat and hearing Our Song being played on the radio as the current country music number one. Our Song, Taylor’s ode to ‘riding shotgun in the front seat’ of her beau’s car, topped the chart over Christmas 2006 into January 2007. It is a 100% Swift tune, with music and lyrics by her. It followed the ballads Tim McGraw and Teardrops On My Guitar onto the radio and persuaded kids to listen to her debut album, which came out to little fanfare in October 2006.

Quite incredibly, it would sell so well that it made the top 20 of the US Country Album chart’s end-year list in 2007 (number three behind Carrie Underwood and Rascal Flatts), 2008 (second only to the Eagles comeback album), 2009 (number six, when her follow-up LP Fearless was number one) and 2010, when it was still in the top 20 bestsellers. It is a measure of her success that Speak Now finished third after being released in late October, while Fearless was beaten only by Lady Antebellum’s Need You Now.

In 2007 and 2008 Taylor was not yet starry enough to headline her own shows, so in country music style she went out on the road with several A-Listers; first Rascal Flatts, then George Strait (the most successful singer on radio in recorded music), Kenny Chesney, Brad Paisley and Tim McGraw/Faith Hill. Nobody could escape Taylor and, by 2009, she was entrusted with her own tour, where Justin Bieber played eight songs as an opening act.

How many executives would allow their star signing to write their third album with no outside help? Scott Borchetta allowed Taylor to produce Speak Now, which was rolled out with six singles to country radio in a period of eighteen months. Only Garth Brooks and Shania Twain could do something similar before her, although Luke Bryan and Luke Combs would also get lots of success from a single album.

Speak Now went platinum in its first week, debuting right at the top of the Billboard album chart in a very good year for country music. New albums by Zac Brown Band, Toby Keith, Kenny Chesney and Lady Antebellum did well in an era dominated by Eminem, the cast of Glee and, incredibly, Susan Boyle. Propelled by the Grammy nominations, Speak Now returned to the top of the charts for the four weeks at the start of 2011, and it must have impressed secret indie kid Taylor that cult band Cake knocked her off the top.

The fact that Kanye West, another act with a chart-topping album, had interrupted her MTV Video Awards acceptance speech in September 2009 was also useful at getting her name out to the general public. All the same, he was right about Single Ladies being a more memorable video than You Belong With Me.

The setlist for her Fearless and Speak Now tours between 2009 and 2012 was already a Greatest Hits set: You Belong With Me, The Story Of Us, Mean, Our Song, Teardrops on My Guitar, Love Story, White Horse, Fifteen, Fearless, Picture To Burn and Should’ve Said No all featured, as did interpolations of songs by One Republic, Train and Jason Mraz, all of which were played alongside Taylor’s tunes on pop radio. This was all the more fascinating because Taylor was still a country act first and foremost, though those days were soon to finish.

Part Two takes us through the pop career of Taylor Swift and the acts who replace her on country radio, including Justin Moore and Thomas Rhett, who are pushed by Scott.

Country Jukebox Jury LPs: Niko Moon and Larry Fleet

September 25, 2021

Niko Moon – Good Time

Niko wrote Homegrown for Zac Brown Band, was one-third of Sir Roosevelt and has emerged from Atlanta to become a solo star. The first track is called No Sad Songs, which means Niko has done me a favour and reviewed his own album. Positivity can be grating but Niko really does feel great to be alive, as evidenced by his closing cover of the renowned Travis Tritt standard.

This is an album primed for playlists made by pop fans. The production is full of skittering digital cymbals to underscore some fine melodies which are very sticky. Good Time struck me the very first time I heard it, ‘like a bobber on a wet line’. These are songs about life in the country sung with so much character which Niko wrote with his wife Anna and recorded in their home studio.

Paradise To Me, a beach jam and follow-up single to Good Time, sounds a bit ‘in the box’ (made by machines) to fully reflect the glories of ‘pina coladas down in PCB’ (Panama City Beach in Florida) and I’d like to hear this track done with acoustic instruments. In fact, Niko has released six songs from the album as part of a Campfire Sessions EP which is merely a set of alternative mixes rather than any live band interpretations.

There are love songs like the evocative Diamond which could be a Backstreet Boys hit (‘you’re timeless, I’m talking priceless’), the slinky Dance With Me (‘you and me together, spinning like a record’), the midtempo Good At Loving You – on which Niko says he’s having trouble learning Spanish and managing money but at least he’s good at being a partner – and Last Call, which compares a girl who ‘got that top shelf’ to several alcoholic drinks. It’s not unusual for a couple to write love songs but Niko treats the ladies in the song with respect and humanity, rather than lust and horniness. More of this would be welcome in contemporary country music, where there are far more blokes than ladies in the writers rooms.

Reminiscin song Way Back is driven by a two-chord loop and another fine chorus, while Let It Ride is a song about wanting to do nothing, like Bruno Mars’ Lazy Song. She Ain’t You reminds me of Flo Rida’s work: it makes your head nod, your mouth sing and your heart gladden, and includes a bridge featuring some hiphop delivery (‘she got…she got…’). In a rare sad moment, Drunk Over You masks Niko’s mournfulness with a poppy melody and lots of alcohol (‘the more I drink, the more I find getting drunk over you is just wasted time’).

The album’s best chorus comes on Small Town State of Mind, which repeats the title six times and is an ideal campfire singalong, but it’s a relief when the percussion drops out and Niko’s voice can come through on Without Sayin A Word, which praises Niko’s dad who by his very existence taught him how to be a good, humble person. That humility is all over the debut album, which I hope is the first of many.

Larry Fleet – Stack of Records

Jake Owen took Larry Fleet on tour with him last year, having met him in 2017. In that timespan Luke Combs has sold squillions of concert tickets that make this year’s hottest trend ‘authentic, heart-on-sleeve’ music. Thus do Combs fans have much to enjoy on this album, Larry’s second.

On the album cover, the singer sits in front of shelves of vinyl. Helped by Eric Paslay and Ben Hayslip, the title track opens the album: ‘If you wanna know me, you gotta know what’s in my soul’, he sings, namechecking Muscle Shoals Alabama, Waylon Jennings’ theme to Dukes of Hazzard and Midnight Train to Georgia.

The minor radio hit Where I Find God was written with Connie Harrington, who is best known for I Drive Your Truck. It deserves to be heard and Larry’s vocal reminds me of Lee Brice, unsurprisingly given Lee won awards for interpreting that song. It is a shame that such drek has been nominated for CMA Song of the Year when songs as good as these are hiding in plain sight. Larry has plenty of help from top writers which his label, Big Loud, has put him together with. It is nonetheless impressive that Larry was in the room for every track on the release. Producer Joey Moi continues a renaissance by pivoting from Florida Georgia Line loudness to sensitive country-rock.

Brett James was there for Lifetime Guarantee and A Life Worth Living, which are both found on the album’s first side. The former, where Larry compares himself to a Timex watch, is the best song Luke Combs is yet to write about life and how to live it; the latter is basically A Life That’s Good from the TV show Nashville, full of humanity and lessons on how to live a country way of life. Church Parking Lot is a great reminiscin’ song about learning about life in an unusual venue for a song, while God gets a mention too, as the title suggests.

The Warren Brothers were there for the ballad Hurt Feelings, whose chorus begins ‘you can punch me in the face’ and contains a lot more violence as well as a terrific middle eight. Jeff Hyde was there for the ruminative Heart On My Sleeve (‘from a chip on my shoulder’), which is a slowburn track full of emotion that reminds me of Jeff’s buddy Eric Church.

There are fun, quick songs to leaven the impact of the slowies. Jon Pardi pops up to add vocals on In Love With My Problems, a putdown of a song where the punchline is that if the protagonist ‘fell in love with my problems, maybe they’d leave me too!’ I also like the country rocker Quittin Ain’t Workin and the smooth Different Shade of Red, another song about how a lady brings out a different side of the protagonist, with the image of rose petals on the bed in the chorus.

For a Proper Song, try Three Chords and a Lie, which hooks you from the opening line, or Never Wanna Meet Another Woman, which is the album’s token wedding song. Suitably the album ends with the chugging blues harmonica-assisted rocker One For The Road (‘long way to go’), although the physical CD has a bonus track which features Jamey Johnson and Bryan Sutton called Highway Feet, a very quick track full of banjo which reminds me of Alabama.

Country Jukebox Jury LPs: Jameson Rodgers and Laine Hardy

September 25, 2021

Jameson Rodgers – Bet You’re From A Small Town

How about this for planning: Scotty McCreery’s song You Time and Jameson Rodgers’ duet with Luke Combs, Cold Beer Calling My Name (they are both River House artists) are this month among the most played songs on country radio. Not coincidentally, both acts are this month putting out new albums.

Jameson’s song Some Girls came out in 2018, was a number one in 2020 and is being followed by a full-length album which contains Some Girls. The album itself follows two EPs, both of which contained Some Girls. Jameson, who didn’t write Some Girls, is in the Cole Swindell tradition of acts who write songs, sing them, have a bit of a toothy smile and are from the South. I am sure he’ll gain many fans but he’ll never be a superstar in the Luke Combs/ Thomas Rhett level.

As well as his two big singles, tracks that migrate from those EPs to the album include Good Dogs (‘don’t live long enough’), Missing One (a very good chorus and a live favourite) and Desert. When the EP came out in April, I noted that Desert was ‘a piece of country philosophy that every new artist writes which here notes that “the cold and the rain and the pain don’t last forever” and you need the lows to appreciate the highs’.

The track Girls That Smoke (‘they’ll burn you down to ashes man it ain’t no joke!’) dates from a 2016 EP and has been re-recorded (in the key of E) and with slightly softer drums. The six repackaged tracks makes this a sort of album that says, This guy has been around for ages but now he’s got a lot of money behind him. Is there any need for a Jameson Rodgers album, other than to say he’s got an album out?

The new tracks which originate on the album kick off with One Day, a heartland rock chugger full of Eric Church-like self-reflection. I could have done without ‘one day I’m gonna die’ in the chorus, but the song is redeemed by the superlative guitar solo-ing at the end of the song. There’s a nice namecheck for Merle Haggard, who ‘woulda wrote songs about you’, on a soft ballad which lingers on an ex. It’s odd to put such a tender song as the album’s second track, so early on the tracklisting but I bet this is deliberate, much as Luke Combs put Lonely One as the third track on his debut album.

Girl with the Broken Heart (‘Go set them selfies on fire…drink that wine you’re gonna be fine’) chugs along effectively, while Close to Anything has a chorus as massive as the guitars but it’s pretty lightweight. It is followed by the far better five-minute title track, another one indebted to The Chief, Eric Church, with rural signifiers including pick-up trucks, ‘hauling hay’ at a summer job’, clear skies where you can ‘see every star’ and the ‘muddy river’ which is the site of baptism. It’s a winner and shows how much an influence Eric, the outlaw of mainstream country music, has been on contemporary country.

Bars Back Home is another homage, complete with some gentle mandolin and a namecheck for Black Water, the excellent Doobie Brothers tune, as is Bringing It Back, with the dropped guitar tuning and tender vocals which tell a story of trying to win a girl by putting the fire back in her eyes. The production from relative newcomer Jake Mitchell and Deana Carter’s producer Chris Farren is gorgeous, on this track and throughout the new songs.

Porch With A View reminds me of Florida Georgia Line’s ballads, and it’s an effective love song which pivots around the line ‘arm wrapped around you’. You Won’t, which sounded great on Bob Harris Country last week, has a triple-time swing beat and a mournful lyric which prove that Jameson can write a great tune. It’s up to him, and the audience, whether he’ll be a Luke Bryan A-Lister or a Cole Swindell B-Lister.

Laine Hardy – Here’s To Anyone

Laine wrote only two of the songs so this is an old-fashioned corporate country album, which makes perfect sense because we’re nearing the end of the Idol era. Laine won American Idol in 2019, the series in which Laci Kaye Booth made the last five. From Louisiana, Laine made his Opry debut to promote the album and was impressive in a corporate kind of way. He didn’t seem overawed by the occasion, probably because of all the TV work he did on Idol, and looks delightful and marketable.

He performed the three-chord opening track Authentic, which was written by Jessi Alexander, Matt Jenkins and David Lee Murphy; For A Girl is another fine melody from the Mobley-Thrasher team who have given Jason Aldean so many hits – indeed, the album is produced by Michael Knox, who helped pioneer the muscular country of Aldean – while Comin Down sounds like a sex jam Aldean would put on hold. There’s wire-brushed drums on the pretty Tiny Town (‘what I wouldn’t give right now to be back’).

Here’s To Anyone is a poppy three-chord drinkin song with a mighty chorus and lots of Southern signifiers – fishing, eating, riding, ‘George Jones and Cash’ – sung with gusto. I also love the descending riff that runs through Memorize You, which is basically I Don’t Know About You by Chris Lane but a lot, lot better. Laura Veltz’s smooth grasp of melody adds to the bouncy One of Those, which Laine co-wrote, while Brett Beavers adds his own country sentiments to Ground I Grew Up On, which sounds like ten Blake Shelton album tracks rolled into one.

Busbee, Andrew Dorff and Jon Nite wrote California Won’t (of those three only Nite is alive today). It’s like an ultimatum: California may be full of ‘velvet ropes’ and the Hollywood Walk of Fame ‘but I’ll hold you close’. As with all Jon Nite tunes, there’s a lot of melancholy in the melody. The funky Other LA picks up on a similar theme, the same one that Lainey Wilson sings about on her track LA, contrasting ‘Hollywood noise’ and the ‘good ole boy’. Laine, however, sounds functional and without the personality of a Luke Combs or Luke Bryan, who would destroy this song.

Ditto Let There Be Country, which closes the album like a fireworks display with its rural signifiers. Get the Country Bingo cards out: live bands with a tip jar, trucks, back road, John Deere tractor, cold beer, Friday night, neon lights, bonfires, shotgun seats, jeans, dancing, Bass Pro caps, apple pie and BINGO! It’s one of those list songs set to three familiar chords and I am sure every writer in Nashville has written this song. Doesn’t make it any less country, which is what Laine Hardy is being marketed as. I wish him well!

Country Jukebox Jury LPs: Lauren Alaina and Scotty McCreery

September 25, 2021

Simon Cowell’s X Factor has just come to an end but it’s redundant in an era of TikTok fame and influencer culture. In the 2000s it pulled millions upon millions of viewers and formats aired in countries like Afghanistan. Back in 2011, two teenage country singers came up in the same season and have had to bide their time and ride some rough waters.

Lauren Alaina – Sitting Pretty on Top of the World

Lauren’s third album has been preceded by two EPs and a lot of heartache including a broken engagement. As the opening track notes, It Was Me, not her ex-fiance, who needed the break. One of the best voices in all of American music, we first heard Lauren as a teenager thrust into the spotlight. She has grown into a performer to more than match Carrie Underwood – Lauren has a personality, Carrie is bland – and a fine Georgia accent.

I expect she has had a lot of editorial control over her album, which contains plenty of songs which have appeared on those two EPs. The album’s second side begins with the brilliant single Getting Over Him, which pairs Lauren with Jon Pardi and is a deserved smash even if it’s a rewrite of Home Alone Tonight by Luke Bryan and Karen from Little Big Town. If The World Was A Small Town still sounds to me like a Carrie Underwood song thanks to her writers David Garcia and Josh Miller creating a lightly country-sounding background. Ditto Good Ole Boy (‘who didn’t love me that good, ole boy’), a song full of regret with respect for the boy who is ‘back in the saddle’ and drinking in his favourite haunts.

Last year’s EP contained Run and What Do You Think Of (a duet with Lukas Graham), while Getting Good was the title of a 2019 collection and now includes Miss Trisha Yearwood for added oomph. By necessity the production is very poppy, which rather clashes with Trisha’s superb pipes, and the song should stand on its own merit. The same kind of tenor is displayed on Change My Mind, where Lauren begs her heart to break down the barriers preventing her from falling in love again. The vocal is exquisite.

Lauren puts her life in songs like I’m Not Sad Anymore which, by the first chorus, you can tell is a Love Junkies collaboration thanks to the emotional heft of Liz Rose, Hillary Lindsey and Lori McKenna. It’s one of three on the album: on Same Story, Different Saturday Night, there is tenderness from the narrator who paints the scene of a bar full of ‘neon hearts poured out over ice’, while Written In The Bar is a three-minute romantic comedy fuelled by tequila and ‘numbers-on-Friday-night napkins’.

I am sure Lauren brought some of her life to You Ain’t A Cowboy, which opens with a lyric comparing the Wild West and a ‘Podunk Town’ and namechecks George Strait. Alternatively, the kiss-off When The Party’s Over is not a cover of the Billie Eilish song, though I reckon Lauren could cover it in her shows, but a tempo tune with a great bouncing melody but ‘if you don’t call me when you’re sober I’m not picking up when the party’s over’! Yaaaas queen.

Lauren is spending the autumn promoting the album as well as a book and a movie appearance, and it wouldn’t surprise me to hear Goodbye Street in a TV movie. It’s full of imagery (picket fences, headlights, windowpanes) and a soaring melody over a plucked acoustic guitar.

On Top of the World, the song which gives the album its title, was written with pop writer Sasha Sloan who was behind the song Never Be The Same for Camila Cabello. Her grasp of melody helps Lauren tell her breakup tale in a triple-time tune which contrasts ‘life of the party’ with ‘hitting rock bottom…I’d rather be faking than drinking alone’. It’s a modern country song that will be in her set even when she settles down with the right man some day.

Then we’ll hear more love songs from her, rather than brilliant self-love songs, which this album is full of.

Scotty McCreery – Same Truck

Scotty’s last album was his first as an independent artist. It was propelled by Five More Minutes, a weepie that got all the way to number one and proved he was more than a talent show champ, here today, gone tomorrow.

As he displays on the title and lead track, which is a song of universal brotherhood, his songs are in the Brad Paisley or Bill Anderson vein. It Matters To Her, written with Brad’s collaborator Lee Thomas Miller and the ubiquitous Rhett Akins, is a punchy love song in which Scotty seems to be advising listeners to ‘put her first every single time’. Ashley Gorley seems contracted to appear in the credits of every album made on Music Row. He co-wrote the funky Small Town Girl with the super ‘track guy’ Zach Crowell, best known for his work with Sam Hunt. The chorus is effortlessly catchy and itchy, and the hook is double-tracked with electric and acoustic guitars.

I also love Why You Gotta Be Like That, where Scotty and his unnamed belle (Gabi, a nurse, whose name rhymes with ‘capisce’), get all frisky before a night out. Blake Shelton or Luke Bryan would have had a huge hit with this in 2014, as this lovely country music never goes out of style and makes the woman look good.

Two tunes were written with Scotty’s producer Frank Rogers, best known for discovering Brad Paisley. Home is a reminiscin song full of happy memories of hanging with the boys at the bar that are at odds with his mature, domestic life, while The Waiter, which ends the record’s first side, is a rewrite of Brad’s Waiting on a Woman.

It’s a piano ballad set in a restaurant where an old gent is ‘talking to heaven’ where his former wife lives. It’s a three-minute movie which screams Emotional Album Track and Concert Weepie. Scotty’s narrator, the waiter, leaves him to his ritual: ‘He ain’t missed a date with her since 1959’. I expected a pay-off in the third verse and it’s testament to the writing and the production that we care so much about this widow. It’ll make you tell your loved ones you love them.

Similar pathos comes from the proud hometown anthem Carolina To Me, which will join Five More Minutes and wedding song This Is It in Scotty’s setlist for decades to come. It’s a country song which, as is often the case, describes how home is where the heart is. His descriptions of Carolina pines on Tobacco Road, Andy Griffith’s fun TV character from the olden days, wild horses on the beach and grandpa fishing on the river are evocative, as is the picked guitar and pedal steel which create a mood that country music has trademarked.

The album ends with the smouldering love song That Kind of Fire (‘every kiss is like a spark’) and How Ya Doin Up There, which contains the best vocal performance on the album and will work well as a solo acoustic number. It’s a musical prayer to the Lord and Scotty mentions how ‘faith has disappeared’. God is due a comeback in country music and Scotty’s deep voice should help.

Two outside writes also make the album. Damn Strait, which sounds like a Blake Shelton classic, is one of those songs which tie together songtitles and call it a song in a genre known as Frankenstein Country. At least there’s a point to it, like Shut Up Kenny by Walker Hayes, where the singer’s tunes don’t give the heartbroke guy a break. The production recalls that of George’s classic tunes, with loads of pedal steel. Meanwhile It’ll Grow On Ya is about the difference between blacktops roads and red-dirt country towns, with plenty of rural signifiers: kudzu vines, chatting to strangers, tractors, two-lane roads, ‘they don’t take credit cards’. It’s sort of an invitation to the dance in a song: ‘This ain’t the place to stop if you’re just passing through’ is a good way to sell rural life and the music fits around it.

Why Scotty was banging on about Southern Belles in the bro era, his record company only knows. This is a young man confident in his art and in himself. We love him in the UK and he’ll get plenty of applause at C2C 2022, third on the bill on the Darius Rucker day. Runaway June and Brett Young complete a very girl-friendly line-up which comes to London on the Saturday.

Country Jukebox Jury LPs: RaeLynn and Mickey Guyton

September 25, 2021

RaeLynn – Baytown

In the modern style, echoing the likes of Maddie & Tae, an entire album seems to have already been rolled out. There’s nothing wrong with that, when streaming comes first for an artist targeted at the under-30s with their playlists and TikTok accounts, but it doesn’t half dilute the impact of a new full-length release when most of the songs are well known.

I spent the first part of 2020 deeply hooked on Keep Up, a wonderful song in which RaeLynn boasted of her ‘Baytown twang’. Suitably, her album (which begins with Keep Up) is named after her hometown, population 76,000, who should all be proud of her.

I loved her song Love Triangle, a slow burner from her last full-length release, and the Lori McKenna co-write God Made Girls, both of which she performed in the tent outside the O2 Arena when she came over for Country2Country in 2019. She also supported Maren Morris in some big UK venues that spring, where she played the fine trio of Bra Off (‘breaking up with you is like taking my bra off, feeling free and loose’), the bro-country-sung-by-a-gal Rowdy and the excellent song Only In A Small Town.

That last tune was written by small-town bard Rhett Akins and we get plenty of rural signifiers: Walmart, ‘more trucks than cars’, ‘tea is sweet’, dogs in the shotgun seat, living for Friday, back roads, first kiss in the backroads, fishing…but not bingo because God isn’t there for some reason. Rhett being Rhett, there’s a fun verse about ex-boyfriends and a good line about going to ‘Mickey D’s…supersized’. The vocal has personality and charm, as always, although I do wonder how many ways Rhett Akins can write the same song before he runs out of road. Crap, that’ll probably be a Rhett Akins song too!

We’ve also heard Still Smokin’, a jazzy song about a summer fling; Fake Girl Town, about being a young lady hiding the hurt on a night out (Jesus gets a namecheck in the chorus); and Judgin’ To Jesus, which is full of personality and wit and reminds me of Maddie & Tae’s finest tunes, especially because RaeLynn raps the verses.

The previously released pair of Me About Me – a slice of autobiography disguised as a lament for her partner not asking about her – and Small Town Prayer (‘we’re so little and He’s so big’) both show depth in her songwriting. She Chose Me, written with the stellar Jimmy Robbins, is a story of her own conception: ‘More than just love was made’ when her parents met in a Galveston motel room. Her mum didn’t choose ‘one quick fix’ and instead gave birth to Rachael Lynn! What a bold song to release, and no wonder if was kept from the public until the album. The album concludes with a demo version of her song Made For Me To Love, which is all about her own pregnancy which led to a newborn baby a few weeks ago. Jesus gets a namecheck in the third verse.

Neon Cowgirl is a barroom song where RaeLynn encourages the protagonist to keep shining in spite of her breakup, a more traditional take on the Maddie & Tae tune Bathroom Floor. The production from Corey Crowder, who also helped Chris Young’s recent work, is tender.

Not happy with a spot on that Chris Young album Mitchell Tenpenny joins RaeLynn on Get That All The Time, which was curiously written by both Tyler Hubbard and Kane Brown but which features neither of them. This might be because it’s a bit of fluff set in a bar and doesn’t really feature much of the male vocalist.

Elsewhere, Blake Shelton uses his muscle as her former Voice coach to duet on Why I Got A Truck, another song co-written by T-Hub (whose Tree Vibez label puts out RaeLynn’s music). Blake play the role of a father figure teaching RaeLynn to drive a big vehicle: ‘It’s a little bumpy but I like it that way!’ There’s also a nice Joe Diffie allusion as Blake purrs how girls ‘love a pickup man’. It’s just two country kids singing about trucks and there’s nowt more country than that.

Mickey Guyton – Remember Her Name

I worry for Mickey Guyton who has spent seven years waiting to release her debut album.

Thanks to the protests over the treatment of black Americans, Nashville has looked around and realised there’s not much diversity in the sea of white faces (make it happen at executive level too and there’ll be proper change). It remains a damning indictment that Mickey could release a human being into the world before this album, and credit should go to Capitol Nashville for financing this album and, hopefully, enable her to support a top-level artist (I would suggest Alicia Keys) on tour next year. She went out with Brad Paisley back in 2015, since when a lot has changed. Chrissy Metz, a make-up artist who became an actress on This Is Us, is one of many singers who are better known by country fans than Mickey.

Mickey is now based in LA, so is geographically far away from Nashville, and I think it’s a farewell. She knows, as I do, that she’ll be treated as the Black Girl in Town. She’s already been given a CMT Award and I am sure a CMA Award will follow. Her voice is similar to that of Carrie Underwood and is best served by ballads like Better When You Left Me, which appears in a new version six years after it was first released. Imagine Carrie with a political conscience.

This is definitely her story and it stands out in today’s climate. Black Like Me (‘it’s a hard life on easy street’) and What Are You Gonna Tell Her are both showstoppers which would be perfect for American Idol contestants in lieu of the Dreamgirls official soundtrack. Both of those songs brought Mickey back into the conversation; I knew of her through Somebody Else Will, a poppy track written by some A-Listers that felt very conveyer belt. Now, as an artist, she follows acts like Maren Morris and Carly Pearce in being more than a cookie-cutter Music Row puppet.

Jon Caramanica spoke to Mickey for the New York Times, where the singer revealed she was on medication to keep her mood up and, shockingly, recounted the times she had to go on round trips to Atlanta to see a stylist for her red carpet appearances when she first broke through. She also self-medicated with alcohol, which she doesn’t now she’s a mummy. That brings a new flavour to Rose, which becomes a sort of taunt rather than a bachelorette anthem.

Another theme on the album is Mickey’s place in the world, using her identity to inform her art, which starts with the title track that opens the album. With impassioned vocals, especially in the middle eight, Mickey does the modern thing of ‘taking up space’ in a way that should inspire the listener. It’s a great instrument that hasn’t been allowed to flourish in Nashville; again, it damns the city.

All American trots around the country and ticks off ‘James Brown and James Dean’ to unite black and white before unleashing a chantalong chorus. Fine British songwriter Anna Krantz gets a co-write on Love My Hair, another song which will launch a thousand thinkpieces: ‘I found my freedom,’ Mickey sings, addressing her 12-year-old self and all 12-year-old girls who will see an aunt or big sister figure.

The tracklisting is full of punchy one-word titles: Words is a therapy session in song which rhymes ‘my truth/bulletproof’ and will resonate with plenty of listeners (‘what can I say, I’m only human’); the insistent pop song Different, which actually sounds like a song that would play over the credits of a Disney movie aimed at kids, perhaps on purpose; the worshipful ballad Higher, written with Narada Michael Walden who wrote I Love Your Smile for Shanice; the accusatory Smoke, written with Balewa Muhammed who worked on Dirrty for Christina Aguilera; and Indigo, where Mickey is ‘bluer than blue’.

Some of the tracks take on themes which are too rote. Lay It On Me is another one of those songs about crying on the singer’s shoulder and feels like filler. Dancing in the Living Room is another one of those songs about slow-dancing in a dimly lit room. Do You Really Wanna Know is another one of those songs about hiding the truth about how you feel, with the revelation that her dependency on drink has led her to therapy and changing ‘the way I think about the way I think’.

Grady Smith once described ‘Nashville country music’ today as the intersection between Adult Contemporary, Christian music and pop music, with a dash of rural themes common in country music. Like Dan + Shay, Gabby Barrett and Thomas Rhett, Mickey is operating in this genre, which may well open up the genre to black acts like Brittney Spencer and Chapel Hart. Mickey’s album is fine, but what she represents is the game-changer.

I can’t wait for the follow-up, which ought not to take eight years to make.

Country Jukebox Jury LPs: Kacey Musgraves and Ashland Craft

September 25, 2021

Kacey Musgraves – Star-Crossed

Kacey Musgraves’ last album Golden Hour was all about finding love (‘a wild thing’) and appreciating life (‘let go of your umbrella’). Now divorced from Ruston Kelly, her fourth album is full of songs about losing that love. The record comes with a film which puts Kacey alongside the likes of Taylor Swift, Justin Bieber, Beyonce and (surely) Lizzo and Ed Sheeran.

But none of those acts would take psilocybin to help zap their neural pathways into forming new thoughts. Kacey, like Dolly before her, is starting to become her own genre, with a sort of cosmic American music thanks to co-producers Dan Tashian and Ian Fitchuk who can get the best out of her voice. It’s very difficult not to hear this album as Music Industry A-Lister Sounds Sad.

We have nylon-stringed acoustic pattens on the title track, which begins with Kacey setting the scene: ‘Two lovers ripped right at the seams/ They woke up from the perfect dream’. The middle section piles voice upon voice to create a cavalcade of woe. Melancholy reigns on If This Was A Movie (‘I’d be surprised hearing your car coming up the drive’), Camera Roll (‘chronological order and nothing but torture’ is a good rhyme) and Angel, where the soft acoustic guitar from the title track returns.

Easier Said contains the ever poignant diminished fifth chord (F minor in the key of B-flat) where Kacey lingers on the art of love, which many divorcees will find comfort in. It segues effortlessly into Hookup Scene, a song with minimal production trickery and all the better to transfer the starkness of the emotions of a woman warning the listener to hold love close, lest you end up sleeping around and feeling even more lonely.

Being grown-up, sings Kacey on the majestic Swift-like Simple Things, ‘kinda sucks’, which has the same percussive drive as tracks like Golden Hour or Love Is A Wild Thing, proving a musical continuity with the last album which gained her millions of pop fans. I hope Kacey gets her due as a songwriter and melodist, as this one is watertight. As is the album’s single Justified, with its ‘just a little justified’ lyrical hook.

Breadwinner is driven by a percussive guitar part, over which Kacey warns that certain boys want ‘your dinner till he ain’t hungry any more’ (Dolly could have written that line). Without the brilliant melodies the songs would sound angry but there’s some sugar in her scorn.

Good Wife is a majestic melody with some patented Tashian 7th chords sitting underneath a lyric about uxoriousness. Cherry Blossom double- or triple-tracks her vocals and adds some pentatonic touches to allude musically to Japan. This would work as an acoustic track but lashings of contemporary production give it warmth. This is the ‘in love’ phase of the album, tinged with the melancholic wish of Kacey singing ‘don’t let me blow away’.

The final tracks on the album are full of hope and optimism; it’s almost a joke to hear the fingerclicks and jaunty major key of Keep Lookin’ Up. Ditto the self-referential What Doesn’t Kill Me, where the ‘golden hour faded black’ and where a bright guitar and percussive beat try to pick Kacey up by musical osmosis. She continues, on the next track, ‘There is a light inside of me’, where the production recalls High Horse’s cosmic disco. I imagine this will work well live, especially with the flute solo (Ron Burgundy? Lizzo? The guy from Jethro Tull?). It’s also the sound of a confident artist whose record label realised that it’s probably wise to push her to a pop market (via Interscope) as well as a country one (she is still signed to MCA Nashville).

The album, which recalls Red by Taylor Swift in its defiant push beyond Nashville, ends with Gracias A La Vida, a folk song written in 1960s Chine by Violeta Parra, who killed herself soon after it was released. Initially sung in Spanish, like an old Tejano melody, over crackling vinyl, before different production choices mark each section of the song and becoming more emphatic. Having started with analogue production, we have a heavily treated vocal line to end the song and ground it in the digital era. It’s probably a sonic metaphor of how time passes, and it’s a fine interpretation of what I am sure will also be a concert staple. If nothing else, this is an interesting piece of work.

Ashland Craft – Travelin Kind

I first heard Ashland on the duet So Close with Hardy and admired her EP which included Two Wildflowers and a Box of Wine. I don’t know why the EP was released before the album but I trust Big Loud in how they roll out their artists (even when they are forced to suspend them when they realise their cash cow is an alcoholic who needs careful handling).

One of the live performance videos to promote the album was of the final track That’s The Kinda Place (‘I grew up in’), a shoutout to smalltown life written with producer Jonathan Singleton and the brilliant Rodney Clawson: ‘The place you fall out of love and back in love with’ is a whole album in itself.

Ashland’s voice can be filed with that of Ashley McBryde, a Southern rock vocal which suits piledriving guitar parts. She takes old tropes familiar to the genre, as you can tell from the title track which will surely open her live show. Fab blues harmonica underscores what may well be Ashland’s life in a song. On Make It Past Georgia, she’s fleeing an ex who likes to drink and can’t ‘get his shit together’. The boot is on the other foot as she shows her love for a cowboy by ‘letting you go’ on Letcha Fly because ‘you can’t rope an Always Gonna Go When The Wind Blows cowboy like you’.

She continues common country themes with reference to parentage on Your Momma Still Does, to drinking on both the fun honky-tonker Last 20 Dollars (‘plastic maxed to the limit’) and the midtempo Mimosas In The Morning (which revolves around a drunken escapade) and heartache, of which there are plentiful examples. The fiddle-ful Leavin You Again reminds me of the country-rock that Sheryl Crow was recording in the late 1990s. Marcus King, who also features on the upcoming Zac Brown Band album, joins Ashland for Highway Like Me, a triple-time ballad full of heartache on which Ashland compares herself to a road being driven on. Jessi Alexander, a common writers room occupant, helps Ashland here.

Day By Day begins with a man who ‘jumped ship’ who causes the protagonist more heartache and into the arms of a stranger ‘to make the bad feel a little better’. The vocal carries the song and the production from top songwriter Singleton is perfect on this track and throughout the album. Great voice, great style and worthy of your time.

Country Jukebox Jury: Michael Ray v Carly Pearce 

September 18, 2021

Michael Ray – Higher Education EP

Michael Ray, who was called a Liability by his ex (more of whom shortly), has not risen above B List, scoring radio hits written by others: Thomas Rhett wrote Think A Little Less, Travis Denning wrote Her World or Mine, Abe Stoklasa wrote Get To You, Old Dominion wrote One That Got Away.

He’s drafted in Michael Hardy on his EP Higher Education, because Hardy is able to unite rural and urban effectively for the likes of Florida Georgia Line and Morgan Wallen. No wonder Mitchell Tenpenny has called on Hardy’s services too.

The first impact track from the EP was a ballad called Whiskey And Rain, a two-chord jam which reminded me of all those Gary Allen songs about heartache. I don’t know why the EP’s title track needs a staff of Lee Brice, Kid Rock, Tim Montana AND a solo from Billy Gibbons, but Michael will do anything for his label and it’s a party jam which sounds good cranked up to ten even if you only need to hear it once. I wonder if Michael could have learned how to keep a marriage together too.

Just The Way I Am is a Hardy jam which paints Michael as a chap with ‘too much pride’, owns a suit for when he needs to go to a funeral and who is ‘a poor man’s Hemingway’. (He liked a drink too…) This is rather ruined by the fact that a song called Just The Way I Am is an outside write. Ashley Gorley helps Michael himself on Didn’t Know I Was Country, a proper song which is aggressively contemporary and sounds like Thomas Rhett. We get a lot of rural signifiers – marrying childhood sweethearts, funny accents, peace of mind and a piece of land (the album’s best lyric) – and Michael singing to a fiddle accompaniment.

Jessi Alexander joins Hardy (who, let us remember, is up for Best New Artist at the CMAs) to write Live Without You, a midtempo ballad with a watertight chorus set over a four-chord loop. ‘Nitty needs some Gritty’ and so Michael would be dead without ‘you’; let’s just forget he’s divorced. Picture is a rewrite of Refrigerator Door by Luke Combs with a little more pathos and carpe diem-ness (‘tell them you love them while you got the chance’).

Holy Water, which is a very similar song to Hardy’s tune God’s Country, is the kind of song Blake Shelton could sell. Michael Ray does an okay job of telling the Southern Baptist story which conjures up images of Lincoln cars and Christianity. It sounds like a Hardy song that positions Michael as a rootsy singer who will do anything for his label.

I wonder if the money he earns from the project is going to his ex-wife.

Carly Pearce – 29: Written In Stone

I listened to the initial EP which forms the backbone of Carly’s new album, which everyone knows deals with her divorce from Michael Ray in a marriage that was as doomed as that of Katy Perry and Russell Brand (remember that??).

I saw her perform Show Me Around on a livestream and reckon this takes her to the next level. It’s a song dedicated to her late producer and imagines heaven as his ‘brand new place’ which will one day host Carly to ‘pick back up’ their relationship. Even without the context it’s a wonderful song and will comfort many people who have lost loved ones, especially in the last year.

To lose a friend is bad enough; to lose a marriage in the same year is extremely wretched. Next Girl is a warning to the next lady who falls in love with, well, let’s call him Ray Michael. The seven tracks from the EP, all of which are found on the album, create a whole which follows the long break-up album tradition pioneered by Bob Dylan and Joni Mitchell, and extends into the present day with Sam Smith, Taylor Swift and Adele.

Should’ve Known Better is a companion to Every Little Thing – the song is in the same key and has the same touches of guitar – while on the funky Liability (lie ability, liability – it’s a country song), Ray does not come across well at all. The gentle and Swiftian Messy has verses full of cigarettes, little black dresses, mascara stains, Cabernet and regrettable texts, and a chorus which outlines how ‘moving on…ain’t always gonna be a clean break’.

Day One, where Matt Ramsey of Old Dominion (who gave The One That Got Away to sleazebag Michael Ray) was in the room, sounds like a journal entry or therapy. Carly lists the landmarks in getting over Ray, from not needing to numb her pain with alcohol to seeing a new guy after a month of heartbreak. The tenor matches that of Carly’s number one duet with Lee Brice, I Hope You’re Happy Now.

The title track has fiddle in its third bar, then two fiddles in the middle, which soundtrack a melancholic story – Carly’s story – of how ‘you’re supposed to find yourself’ and ‘stop calling your mum for help’ and get a mortgage and settle down and so on. The listener knows the story because country music loves its couples and looks kindly on those for whom love doesn’t work out.

Perhaps the most pertinent message about the song came from my friend Laura Cooney, who also became ‘a Miss to a Mrs then the other way around’ while writing for Entertainment Focus, which is part of the Destination Country collective. It’s a song of strength and one that Carly will sing with gusto in a live sphere. Once again, Josh Osborne and Shane McAnally help the singer tell her story.

There are thus eight new songs, led by Never Wanted To Be That Girl, a duet with Ashley McBryde which the pair wrote with the great Shane McAnally (who also co-wrote Ashley’s standard One Night Standards). I like the aesthetic of the song, whose first verse Ashley sings as backup. Is there autobiography? Is this fiction? Carly won’t tell whether she was ‘the other one’. It’s a great piece of music that I am sure Carly will play live, with or without Ashley.

The album begins with Kelsea Ballerini co-write Diamondback, which starts off with strings and opens up with a toe-tapping beat and a lyric full of pain. It sounds like Carly is singing over a Kelsea demo and I hadn’t realised how similar their voices were. It’s no surprise that Shane McAnally was in the room too, as Carly tells her ex (let’s call him Ray Michael) that he can keep the house, the truck and the dog but he’s ‘never getting the diamond back’. It’s brilliant, and in the tradition of songs about wedding rings. The best compliment I can pay is that it sounds like a Brandy Clark song.

Emily Shackleton, who co-wrote Every Little Thing, returns to the room on two tracks. What He Didn’t Do is a brutal list of Ray Michael’s flaws with which I am sure other ex-wives will be familiar, while All The Whiskey In The World is a mandolin-flecked waltz where Carly paints Ray in a sad light. It is even more ironic that Whiskey and Rain was the title of Michael’s attempt to control the narrative. ‘Keep on running, keep on hiding so you never face your demons, and tell yourself it’s freedom’ is cutting; Carly as Miss Loretta is a fabulous career move after two albums of iffy pop-country (with apologies to her late collaborator busbee).

On a similar theme Nicolle Galyon and Sasha Sloan were there for the funky Your Drinkin, My Problem: ‘4am, stumble to the bedroom again’ sets the mood and again paints Ray Michael as a bad husband. I love how the groove matches Drink In My Hand by Eric Church and how Ray’s problem is Carly’s. I wonder if this is the real reason they split up.

Natalie Hemby helped Carly write Easy Going, whose intro and bluegrassy long outro remind me of Sheryl Crow and whose punch was lacking from Carly’s first two albums. She sounds like a true artist now, with vocals fluttering around her in the chorus which delivers the Hembyesque punch ‘you made it so easy going’, ie so easy to go.

The album closes with Mean It This Time, where Carly plays a cross between Dolly, Kelsea and Hillary Scott from Big Machine labelmates Lady A. It’s a weepie which puts the focus back on Carly, who will be sure to pick the right second husband. You might as well call it Next Guy, a companion to Next Girl. The next guy is going to be lucky to encounter Carly, a Grand Ole Opry member, in this form. One of the most fully realised projects of the year and kudos goes to Scott Borchetta for letting Carly put her story on record. It’ll make Big Machine some money after all.

Country Jukebox Jury EPs: Four US EPs by King Calaway, Manny Blu, Drake Milligan and Tyler Booth

September 18, 2021

King Calaway – Midnight EP

King Calaway were a sextet who are now a quintet but is there a fanbase there for them?

On their new four-track EP, they want a lady to ‘get close to my locality’ on the fun Homegrown, which is very catchy and hooky and well produced. Heartbreaker is a slinky pop song with the same chorus as Hell of a Night by Dustin Lynch. More People is a plea to be kinder to one another (‘be the first to say sorry and strong enough to take the blame’) and it’s a pop song that Dan + Shay would have loved.

Lainey Wilson helps out on Good Time To Me, which was written by Charles Kelley and Russell Dickerson among others: we get Brooks & Dunn on a jukebox in the opening verse and the F-major chord running through it, with a neat ‘sounds like a good time to me’ post-chorus chant. I think the lyric is ‘music to my beers’ in the chorus itself, which is fun. This will be a great set opener if the band come over for Country2Country next year.

Manny Blu – Devil

2021 has brought five tracks, introduced in turn, now collected on the Devil EP: the party-starter Circle Up with amps cranked up and guitars a-buzzin; ‘dance with the devil, you might as well lead’ is a great lyric on a song with a descending chromatic riff that Aldean would kill to record; Train is poodle-rock in country clothing; and Valet is a ballad which takes the listener back to ‘a hotel rooftop reservation’, with the car left in the care of the valet in favour of a trip to the lady’s place. I’ll keep my ears open for the voice of Brittany Kennell.

The new track of the five is Rusty Things which, as with the other four, is also an outside write given to Manny who inhabits the song with a whisky-soaked croon. Here, his subject is a girl whose ‘heart takes a shine’ to rusted trucks and guitar strings and, of course, Manny himself.

Drake Milligan EP

A self-titled five-track set released on Broken Bow, you can tell the stamp of quality because Tony Brown is overseeing production. Drake is a Texan and you can tell from the first ten seconds of Over Drinkin’ Under Thinkin’, a honkytonk lament with fiddle and close harmony.

Don’t Look Down (‘just keep your eyes on me…We’re getting one two-step closer’) is a slow-dance in the George Strait tradition, while She is a ballad in the George Strait tradition: ‘I can’t believe she’s mine’ is the sentiment, and it sounds like a classic.

Kiss Goodbye All Night (GREAT title) is a sensational tempo tune in the tenor of Randy Rogers or Josh Abbott, with hints of Josh Turner; authentic is what it is. Terry McBride was in the room for Sounds Like Something I’d Do, a turbocharged rocker where Drake’s voice hits some low notes before bursting into a killer Garth/Brooks & Dunn-ish chorus. Remember the name: Drake Milligan.

Tyler Booth – Grab The Reins

Sony Music have introduced another bloke to a market which includes fellow Sony Music acts Ryan Hurd, Luke Combs, Chris Young, Willie Jones, Kane Brown, Adam Doleac, Niko Moon, Jameson Rodgers, Matt Stell and Kameron Marlowe. Let’s not saturate the market, chaps. Sony also own Brooks & Dunn and, indeed, I first heard Tyler sing on a Rebooted version of the song Lost and Found.

Tyler is from Kentucky, like Chris Stapleton, and also plays guitar, like Chris Stapleton. His voice is on the Toby Keith/Blake Shelton/Craig Morgan spectrum, with shades of Chris Stapleton, so if you like that tone then you’ll love Tyler’s croon. He showcases it on Drink It Up, which has a humongous melody and carpe diem lyrics: ‘Keep your family close cos you never know if you’re gonna get another round’ is a fine line written by, among others, the ubiquitous Ashley Gorley.

The EP also contains breakup song Ghost Town, where brushes stroke the drums to create a melancholy mood; heartache-laden blues Stone Cold High and Dry, which is basically Nobody To Blame in they key of B; Gone Done Did, also in the key of B and a fine segue thematically as well, since Tyler is ‘doggone brokenhearted’; and Already Got One, a love song where happily Tyler can head home from the bar to be with his beloved. There is a fine guitar solo.

Palomino Princess is a 100-percenter, with words and music by Tyler himself. ‘Saddle me up,’ he croons, ‘and we can ride the night away’. The instrumentation is superb, with real snare drums and some pedal steel, and there is so much passion in the vocal.

Sony probably want to pivot to old-style country music from before the bro era, but there’s no point in complaining when the music is this good. Kudos should go to Phil O’Donnell, go-to guy for the like of Aaron Watson, Mo Pitney and Craig Morgan, for adding sensitivity to the production and bringing out Tyler’s voice. I am a fan.